Amanda Moser says when she started as the Anchorage Downtown Partnership’s executive director in 2019, she was eager to help make the neighborhood a vibrant, safe, prosperous and welcoming area for residents, visitors and businesses.
A year later, the pandemic rendered downtown a “ghost town,” and Moser was tasked with drawing people back, helping struggling businesses and creating opportunities for residents to connect.
The Anchorage Downtown Partnership is a nonprofit that acts as a resource for the neighborhood, working to make improvements, hosting and organizing community events, and keeping streets clean.
Moser is leaving ADP for a new role working with Alaskans For Better Elections, a group focused on the state’s transition to ranked-choice voting. Moser said the decision to leave was difficult, but that she is excited for a new leader to step into her role at ADP.
The Daily News sat down with Moser to learn more about the challenges of the past few years and her vision for downtown.
Describe what your visions and goals were for downtown when you began your job at ADP. What do you see as the organization’s biggest successes?
It’s funny because I have a million things I want to say. Downtown is a unique space in our community that belongs to everyone. It is both our living room and our front porch. It’s where we gather, we come together to celebrate, we come together to connect and occasionally commiserate. It is where we go to see Broadway shows, and in that same venue, our youth participate in the statewide Spelling Bee.
When I joined the organization, I was really excited about lifting the profile of downtown. I’ve worked downtown my entire career, both at City Hall and in the Atwood Building. I think downtown has not always been the priority or focus. I was excited to step into the space and really make the case that this is an important part of our community for our investment, because everybody benefits when you invest in downtown.
I think the Anchorage Downtown Partnership does that through a lot of different ways. We, in 2019, put on 100 events and brought over 100,000 people downtown. We had Movie in the Park, we had Live After Five, Zumba, hip-hop dance classes — all sorts of different ways to bring our community together in our public spaces and feel connected, feel part of something bigger than all of us.
I think one of the most ambitious projects that we’ve done in the last three years is the Hope Wall Mural. Artist Steve Gordon’s vision of creating an opportunity to bring our community together after the first year and a half of a global pandemic, to create a piece of art that celebrates the hope that we feel at the beginning of spring leading into summer, and the hope of navigating forward. We brought over 500 community members to Town Square Park on a sunny day in August to paint these 70 4-foot-by-4-foot panels. And now the mural is on the Halfling Building. And it is stunning.
It was important to bring our community together so that we could recognize who we are and what we mean to each other. We advocated for the importance of these social interactions because human beings are meant for connection, and the social isolation and the physical distancing was really challenging and it created schisms in our community.
How did the pandemic impact downtown and can you describe some of the changes you saw and what struck you the most? Is downtown on the path to recovery?
The pandemic was devastating to downtown. First and foremost, the work-from-home orders. Downtown is office buildings. And so folks stopped coming downtown for work. And that impacted our coffee shops because folks would grab coffee on the way to work. That impacted our bars because people would grab a beer at the end of the day. It impacted our restaurants because they weren’t grabbing lunch or dinner. It impacted our cultural institutions, the Performing Arts Center and the museum. When folks come down to those institutions, they often grab dinner or a drink afterwards. Downtown really benefits from tourism and guests traveling from around the world.
The absence of all of that activity created the vacuum where we began to see more nefarious activity. And so at the beginning of the pandemic, we recognized the importance of our ambassadors continuing to be downtown and providing positive activation in our streets. We were able to stay out in the streets of downtown, protecting the investment of our property owners and being a positive activation in the streets while it was so, so empty.
Last summer was really exciting because although we had the second summer of cruise ship cancellations, we saw a massive influx of independent travelers. The thing we recognized last summer was independent travelers linger downtown.
They spent money at our local gift shops, at our local restaurants, at our local coffee shops. They were in our public spaces. They were at Live After Five, they were at Music in the Park and they stayed — and businesses downtown had their best summer. If you talk to gift shops and restaurants last summer — record sales. A big takeaway was that although we didn’t have the quantity that we typically have during a tourism season, because we had folks that were spending more time in this space, it was more of a quality.
In your opinion, what’s the best version of what downtown Anchorage could look like in 10 years? What will it take to get there?
Successful downtowns prioritize opportunities for people to connect. Currently, our downtown is focused on the movement of vehicles. And this shows up in a handful of ways. We have a lot of one-way streets. One-ways are great if you’re looking to get folks out of a place. And there’s also a handful of streets downtown that have a high speed limit, so you’re looking to move folks through this area quickly.
A downtown that prioritizes people over the movement of vehicles creates opportunities for folks to traverse the space on foot, on bike, on scooter, on wheels and maybe even prioritizes those movements over vehicular movements. When you’re walking down a street downtown, you’re more likely to connect with somebody else and have a chat, find commonality.
Downtown also has this tremendous opportunity that it is surrounded by our incredible trail system. You have the Ship Creek Trail connecting us to East Anchorage and North Anchorage and you have the Coastal Trail connecting through West Anchorage all the way to South Anchorage. You have a tremendous opportunity to bring all of those folks — whether they’re biking, running, skating, skiing, etc — into the downtown core to support our downtown businesses.
When you look at downtowns worldwide, anytime you prioritize the movement of people over the movement of cars, you see increased sales at bars and restaurants. You see more vibrancy, more activation, more folks out in the space. I think that there’s tremendous opportunities for downtown Anchorage to continue to move in the space where it supports and prioritizes those human connections. This is like my new urbanism swan song.
What are some strategies you’d like to see implemented to attract more businesses and residents downtown?
I think the biggest challenge right now for more residents downtown is there aren’t places to live downtown. And so we need to understand what are the barriers to building more housing. Cook Inlet has done some incredible work with Elizabeth Place and Qanchi Place. It would be really valuable to understand the challenges that they faced and how to collaborate with the local government, as well as I think there’s other opportunities for the state to be invested in these conversations.
It’s always this chicken and egg conversation of, “downtown needs a grocery store, and downtown needs a pharmacy,” but downtown doesn’t have a population to support those. How do you get that grocery store and that pharmacy? Well, you probably need to build more housing. What are the barriers to building more housing, and how do you eliminate those?
I think that those conversations have begun and there’s opportunities and more work to be done in that space. But I think that the right people are at the table and having those conversations and I’m really hopeful that we’ll begin to see more of that activation moving forward.
What would you consider the perfect Saturday night in downtown Anchorage?
Moser suggested a “walking feast.”
Here are my favorite spots. I love the Crow’s Nest, and I love the Crow’s Nest bar, and that is the perfect space to get a cocktail or non-alcoholic beverage, their oysters and their fried olives. That’s where you start out. Then, depending on what you’re interested in for dinner — if you want steak, Club Paris. If you are interested in seafood, Orso or Glacier Brewhouse. If you’re looking for sort of an eclectic compilation of small plates, I would do Pangea, Crush or Ginger.
And then I would make another choice for dessert because you want to get the best of all the worlds. Some of my favorite desserts downtown are the peanut butter pie at the Brewhouse, Wild Scoops in the summer, or…the green tea crème brûlée from Ginger.
Then finishing off the night with an evening cocktail and live music. You can often find live music at Humpy’s or Sullivan’s, which is more of a jazz scene.
And then, in an ideal world, you will have ridden your bike downtown, walked to all these places and then ride your bike home on the Coastal Trail.