After the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday refused to move forward with Mayor Dave Bronson’s plan for a large-scale homeless shelter in East Anchorage, city officials must still decide how and where to shelter the city’s homeless population.
Some Assembly members say that keeping the mass care shelter at Sullivan Arena open through the winter might be the city’s best option to ensure hundreds of people in need are able to access shelter. Many are looking for a compromise.
When or if that compromise will take shape and what it might be is still unclear.
After speaking at an event Wednesday, Bronson said he wasn’t surprised by the Assembly’s choice to table his plan and said that he is “reevaluating.” He said he will share his plans soon, and that he is looking forward to working with the Assembly on a “complete solution.”
“Winter is coming and we’re not going to allow anyone to freeze to death on the streets. We’ll come together,” Bronson said. “This is the process, this is the sausage-making that is government. But at the end of the day, myself and 11 Assembly members will come to the right answer and we’ll make it happen.”
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in a written statement Wednesday that Assembly leadership is planning to work with Bronson to “come up with a comprehensive homelessness solution.”
They will hold working sessions and regular committee meetings in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, games for Anchorage’s new junior hockey team, the Anchorage Wolverines, are scheduled to start in October at Sullivan Arena. In a statement Wednesday, one of the team’s owners said not being able to use the arena as scheduled would be “devastating” for the team and for the community.
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, chair of the committee on housing and homelessness, said the next step is for the city to come up with its immediate plan for this winter.
“I laid out a path that I think has good support for this winter, which is to continue mass care whether at the Sullivan or another municipally owned location,” Zaletel said.
Or, the city could also lease a building to use as an alternative shelter option for the winter, she said.
The city would then have more time to figure out a better long-term plan and do an in-depth evaluation of creating a shelter at the Tudor and Elmore roads site, she said.
When the Assembly refused to move Bronson’s proposal forward for consideration, it also tabled a counterproposal from Zaletel and member Forrest Dunbar.
Their counterproposal would have made funding for Bronson’s project contingent on his purchase of the former Alaska Club building on Tudor Road for a 150-person homeless shelter, which he said last week that he would not buy.
Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly member Crystal Kennedy, who on Tuesday moved to table the plans, said both of the proposals had issues.
”The project that the mayor had in mind, in concept, I absolutely support, and I don’t even object to the location. However, the more we look into it, two things happen: The price tag gets higher, and the time length required gets longer,” she said.
Kennedy said she also didn’t think the counterproposal would work because the mayor already made clear that he doesn’t want to buy the Alaska Club building and there has been neighborhood resistance to the building becoming a homeless shelter.
“So that didn’t sound very good to me either,” she said.
On Wednesday, Bronson said he would not reconsider purchasing the Alaska Club building for a shelter.
He also said he is considering ways to speed up the process of erecting his proposed shelter, including declaring an emergency.
“An emergency declaration is not necessarily going around the Assembly. An emergency declaration would help us maybe abridge some of the building process and the permitting process,” Bronson said. “But in the face of an emergency — that’s what emergency declarations are for — and if the Assembly or when the Assembly agrees this is an emergency as winter approaches, I don’t think we’ll be in conflict on that.”
The city has to “short-circuit the building process, otherwise this will be another year, or nine months, so we’re not going to go down that path,” he said.
For an emergency declaration to be part of a working solution, the Assembly also has to be in favor of it. The Assembly could vote to overturn an emergency declaration, and a declaration expires in 48 hours without an Assembly resolution to extend it, according to city code.
Zaletel said that no matter what decision officials make in the coming months, the city will face a tradeoff.
“There’s going to be a tradeoff for sure, but we need to kind of get all the facts on the table so we can evaluate what’s a reasonable tradeoff. I don’t think tens of millions of dollars to hastily build a facility to deal with this situation for this winter is one of the tradeoffs I’m willing to make,” Zaletel said.
Still, uncertainty is weighing on those who need shelter and those who are relying on Sullivan Arena to return to its original purpose.
Kai Binkley Sims, president and part owner of the Anchorage Wolverines, said by email that the team has a signed agreement to use Sullivan Arena and “we are weighing our options.”
The team is looking for an alternative to Sullivan Arena, but the “lack of certainty makes firm planning difficult,” she said.
Ticket sales are a major part of the team’s income, and losing the Sullivan could reduce revenue by as much as 80%, she said.
“Not starting the season at the Sullivan Arena will not only be devastating for our team, but for our whole community,” Binkley Sims said. “After 2020, Anchorage is ready to get back to normal and the return of hockey to the city has become a symbol of Anchorage’s recovery. The continued loss of the Sullivan Arena is a severe blow to the hockey community and the community at large.”
Sims is part of an ownership group that includes her brother, Ryan Binkley; both are also part of the Binkley Co., which owns the Anchorage Daily News.
Asked about Binkley Sims’ statement, Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said that while he thinks “all that is true,” the city has to deal with the fact that it must shelter 400-plus people.
“Ultimately it boils down to the fact that we have a collective responsibility for those who are in the most difficult of situations,” Constant said. “We cannot be throwing people out for entertainment. We have to come up with a long-term option that works, that we can afford, that we can count on.”
It’s not yet clear if that will require the use of the Sullivan, he said.
Still, “if it takes one more season, then that’s what it takes, as regrettable as it is,” he said.
Zaletel also said there are a variety of facilities in Anchorage that could fill the gap in homeless shelter capacity, instead of the Sullivan.
The city must balance protecting people who need shelter with reducing economic hardship, a reason that the Sullivan care facility may need to be shut down, Zaletel said.
Kennedy said, “Bottom line usually is that nobody gets everything they want.”
“Let’s take the good parts that we can and work through the details — because that’s always where the hard part is — but if we just really roll up our sleeves, sit down and and hash it out, I think we can get there,” she said.
The Assembly and the administration will next discuss homelessness during a committee meeting at 11 a.m. July 21 in the Assembly Chambers at the Loussac Library.
In a text message Wednesday, Bronson’s homeless coordinator appointee, Dr. John Morris, said, “This issue is no less important to us, and the Assembly, than it was yesterday so the work will continue.”
“We are committed to having community-wide capacity sufficient to offer refuge to everyone who needs it and we won’t back down from that. We also feel that another winter without meeting that need is unacceptable,” Morris said. “We hope and believe the Assembly feels the same and hope we can build on that agreed goal.”
Daily News reporters Alex DeMarban and Michelle Theriault Boots contributed.