Anchorage

Someone trolled Anchorage with a sign announcing a Whole Foods store. But who? And why?

First things first.

Whole Foods is definitely not opening a store in Anchorage, despite this sign:

"While we are grateful for the steady stream of interest we have from Alaska, at this point we have no plans at all for a store in Alaska," said Susan Livingston, a Whole Foods Market company spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest region in Bellevue, Washington.

The sign is a hoax, she said. They pop up from time to time, like one New Jersey fake-out in 2014.

The mysterious sign showed up on Friday or Saturday on a fence at the intersection of East Third Avenue and Gambell Street, people in the neighborhood east of downtown said. 

Anchorage residents noticed and got excited.  

The picture circulated widely on social media. On Facebook, people shared posts with commentary like "What????!" and "Is it really happening?!"

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But there were signs things were not as they seemed.

Close observers quickly noted a misspelling in the sign: It said Whole Foods was "comming" to Anchorage. Could a slick corporate marketing team really not have spellchecked?

People then began dissecting the location.

The sign was posted on a chain-link fence just up the hill from the Brother Francis Shelter, Beans Cafe and the Anchorage jail. 

The land behind the fence is the site of the old Alaska Native Medical Center. The lot has been vacant for decades. On Monday morning, the only occupants were wild grasses, some resting seagulls and a bunch of empty bottles. The parcels are owned by the city and federal government.

In addition to being seismically unstable, the land is not zoned for a private business like a grocery store, said Robin Ward, the director of the city's real estate development office.

It is also a place where some of Anchorage's most vexing social problems are on full display. 

Some neighbors have long complained that the area is a highway for homeless people who have no place else to go, as well as for public drinking and drug use. On a recent Monday afternoon, tents were set up in bushes a block or two away. Small groups of people passed communal liquor bottles on the sidewalk down to the shelter.

"We've always had an inebriate problem, but it seems more brazen these days. People going through backyards, checking cars," said Jim Renkert, whose family owns property in the east downtown area.

By Monday afternoon, the sign had been removed.

With Whole Foods denying any plans to move in, it appears that someone is trolling Anchorage residents hungry for ancient grain salads and yoga mats made out of recycled tires.

But who? And why?

The sign itself demonstrates a level of commitment. A vinyl, outdoor sign measuring 6 feet long and 4 feet high with a custom logo would cost in the neighborhood of $160, according to the Old Seward Highway store Signs Now.

One prime suspect might have been Ron Alleva.

He is the owner of Grubstake Auction Co., the business located between the future home of the fantasy Whole Foods and Brother Francis Shelter and Beans Cafe.

He has long been a vocal critic of the clustering of other social service groups in the area that serve Anchorage's homeless, which he says have degraded his ability to do business in the area. He has aired some of his social commentary through guerrilla art installations, like a few years ago when he and an employee festooned a fence near the jail with hundreds of empty liquor bottles spelling out "NO BOOZE."

But Alleva says he had nothing to do with it.

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"I did not make the sign," he wrote in an email. "I'm just as surprised and curious what is going on."

His son Jacques Alleva, a broker at Grubstake Auction, said he is also curious about the sign and its meaning.

"Why would Whole Foods put a store right in the middle of like a dumpville?" he said. "There was a murder right down the street the other day."

The sign did at first seem like something his dad would do.

"But I don't think my dad even knows what a Whole Foods is," he said.

Christopher Constant, an Anchorage Assembly member who represents the downtown district, including Fairview, said he was getting messages all weekend about the sign. (Which he said he did not make.)

He sees it as a thought-provoking piece of commentary that exposes an uncomfortable "societal cognitive dissonance" about a simultaneous desire for upscale groceries and an tendency to look away from problems like public substance abuse and homelessness.

"That location has just been abused for generations," he said. "I think it challenges people's preconceptions. At once they want Whole Foods. But they also don't want anything to do with that land. Because they've used it as a human dumping ground."

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If nothing else, the sign succeeded in getting some attention.

And Constant says there is a new use being discussed for the vacant property where the old hospital once stood. He plans to introduce the idea of starting an urban farm on the land to the Assembly. 

"There is definitely a move afoot of discussing making it a food center," he said. Just not one with a brick pizza oven and sushi. 

"Whoever did it, they got right under the skin of a lot of people," Constant said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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