A new prospect for a homeless shelter in Anchorage was barely formulated before getting mired in a political skirmish, leaving the location in limbo.
Last week saw dueling news releases about a prospective 150-bed, low-barrier shelter at the Arctic Rec Center, a church-owned fitness facility on Arctic Boulevard in Midtown, with the mayor announcing a town hall meeting that is likely to draw critics of the proposal, and an Assembly member saying he wants a “clean slate” on shelter options.
What’s unique about the back-and-forth, though, is just how quickly a contentious political dispute has imperiled the project by nearly nipping it in the bud.
Though the Arctic Rec Center has been mentioned as a potential site since 2021′s facilitated collaborative working group (a bipartisan group that came together after Bronson took office, made up of members of the administration, Assembly and community partners), the property failed to meet some of the group’s essential criteria: It couldn’t accommodate the 330-bed target, would take too long to stand up and would have cost more than the $10 million threshold the group aimed for. The facility and the large parcel of land it sits on, just south of Tudor Road, are owned by Faith Christian Community, a church in the nearby Spenard neighborhood. According to Assembly member Felix Rivera, the church had expressed an interest in selling the property, but the list price fell outside the municipality’s budget boundary, and it never advanced far in considerations.
This February, however, several Assembly members were in Juneau to meet with legislators about the city’s requests for funding in the capital budget. The city’s “legislative program” is essentially a wish list for state dollars to pay for things that are either too expensive for the municipal government to do on its own, like a $100 million request for the Port of Alaska modernization project, or have statewide applicability. This year, the mayor and Assembly asked for $20 million for low-barrier shelter and low-income housing, but without specifically identifying particular projects.
In the process of Assembly members speaking with lawmakers, an idea formed to use part of that potential $20 million appropriation to buy the Arctic Rec Center. A Feb. 24 press release from Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance stated that one of the group’s main funding targets was an investment from the state in Anchorage’s Housing First approach, “specifically to direct $20 million to the purchase and development of the Arctic Rec Center as a low-barrier shelter.”
The idea was far from firm, and included no commitment from the Legislature, nor any actual proposal from the Assembly.
“Several members saw an exciting opportunity for statewide investment that offered a near-turnkey facility for low-barrier sheltering and 16 acres of undeveloped land, ideal for the development of a supportive housing subdivision,” LaFrance wrote in a March 15 press release. “Several members brought up the idea with legislators in Juneau, but the Assembly has not yet taken any formal action to prioritize this project.”
Though a work session was scheduled for the end of March to discuss the facility, LaFrance “decided to broaden the focus of the conversation to include all of our options to add permanent low-barrier sheltering by September.”
Around then is when things started getting more contentious.
On March 16, the mayor’s office said in a press release that it would be holding a “Town hall event to hear from residents, business owners, and community members who would be impacted by the Anchorage Assembly’s plan to purchase the Arctic Recreation Center for nearly $13 million, with the intent of turning it into a year-round homeless shelter. The Assembly has indicated they have been lobbying for this proposal to State Legislators in Juneau and envisions both a homeless shelter and low-income housing on the property of the Arctic Recreation Center.”
On his official Facebook page, Bronson made several posts about the upcoming town hall — slated for Friday inside the rec center — that have drawn commenters overwhelmingly critical of the idea.
“This was gonna be jammed down the throat of this neighborhood,” Bronson said in an interview.
The mayor said it came as a surprise that after their trip to the Legislature, Assembly members were discussing funding for the Arctic Boulevard facility, instead of the sprung-tent navigation center by Tudor and Elmore roads that he has pushed for since coming into office. (That project ground to a halt last fall after it came to light that members of Bronson’s administration authorized millions of dollars in construction work without getting approval from the Assembly, a major violation of procurement and contracting rules.)
“They’re not getting money for my nav center, they’re getting money for this,” Bronson said.
Bronson visited the rec center three times last week, he said, noting that plenty of people use it for basketball, pickleball and group events. Bronson also stressed that with federal funding drying up post-pandemic, and current shelter options like the Aviator Hotel and Sullivan Arena facing uncertain futures, hundreds of people above the current status quo could soon be in immediate need of housing.
“We have no place to put people and we’re running out of money,” Bronson said.
Along with Facebook posts advertising his town hall meeting, Bronson has singled out one particular Assembly member for criticism: Rivera, whose Midtown district now covers neighborhoods around the Arctic facility under the boundary lines reconfigured last year, and who is up for reelection on the April ballot.
Last week, Rivera sent out a press release calling for a “clean slate strategy” he would introduce to the full Assembly, which would permanently take both the Arctic Rec Center and Tudor-Elmore Navigation Center off the table for future consideration.
Rivera, who chairs the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, said one of the main problems in local political discussions on homelessness is the emergence of a pattern whenever it comes to proposed shelter sites, one that’s played out with facilities like the Golden Lion, the Alaska Club, the Tudor-Elmore navigation center and, now, the Arctic Rec Center: After a robust public process, a site is proposed because it meets a number of criteria, then community members and businesses in the nearby neighborhoods are mobilized to oppose the project, often by activists and political figures who don’t live in the area.
“If you look at the last two shelters that were really discussed in the community, both the Alaska Club and the Tudor and Elmore navigation center, there have been a lot of similarities between what has happened at the beginning stages and the opposition,” Rivera said. “We have learned as a community that when we start with a facility, that tends not to go well.”
Rivera says he is “laser focused” on standing up a new facility by Nov. 1, when winter weather tends to swell the city’s demand for shelter, and doesn’t think the municipality has any time to be distracted by projects already laden with political baggage.
He disputes the characterization that there was ever a fully formed proposal for the Arctic Rec Center, and thinks Bronson’s statements have more to do with the upcoming election than sound policy or concern for the public process.
“It’s very politically motivated. Let’s be honest: This mayor does not want me on the Assembly anymore. So he is doing everything he can with the abilities he has,” said Rivera, who handily survived a recall effort in 2021 and is running for his third term. “To me it feels pretty political.”
Rivera is also just one of 12 members on the Assembly, and others might not be interested in a “clean slate,” particularly if capital dollars arrive from Juneau to purchase the Arctic Rec Center, which is only a few years old and in good condition.
In a letter sent to Assembly members Tuesday, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ executive director, Meg Zaletel, said a Nov. 1 opening for a new emergency shelter “is optimistic, but probably unrealistic.” (Zaletel also represents Midtown on the Assembly, but recuses herself on issues like housing and homelessness that overlap with her role as the head of ACEH.) The group supports a “clean slate approach” that reconfigures the process by which potential shelter and housing sites are selected, but asked the Assembly not to permanently remove any sites from consideration.
“After the foundation is laid in the community and possible policy changes are made, the calculus for what may constitute an appropriate location for an emergency shelter may change,” Zaletel wrote.
For some social service groups, this latest dispute over the recreation center amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things. In addition to needing hundreds more shelter beds for people living on the streets, in the woods and in cars, the city has not kept up with new development or construction in recent years and is falling further behind in affordable housing options.
“Overall we need something like 2,400 housing units to meet the need,” said Owen Hutchinson, external relations director for the coalition. “A back-and-forth that creates a kind of noise is not most effective way to problem solve this gap.”