A proposal to turn a church-owned recreation center in Midtown Anchorage into a homeless shelter was widely panned at a Friday night event put on by Mayor Dave Bronson.
Though the idea of the city purchasing the Arctic Recreation Center and converting it into a 150-bed low-barrier shelter is in the early stages of consideration, Bronson and his allies have made it into a flashpoint just as Anchorage voters are filling out their mail-in ballots ahead of municipal elections.
Over the last few weeks, the Arctic Recreation Center concept went from a fledgling notion to a political hot potato, with Bronson going to great lengths to promote his town hall ahead of time, and in social media posts associated the prospective purchase with Midtown Assembly member Felix Rivera.
“It appears Mr. Rivera still thinks this is a wise idea to put a homeless shelter in the middle of a very dense neighborhood,” Bronson said in a Twitter post the day before the meeting.
Rivera’s district includes the property, and he is presently up for reelection against a conservative challenger. That opponent, Travis Szanto, was on hand, and the first vehicle parked in the facility’s crowded lot Friday evening was a pickup truck with a large Szanto campaign sign in the bed.
Speaking to the standing-room-only crowd at the start of the event inside the recreation center’s gymnasium on Friday, Bronson said, “We’re not gonna do any politicking here.”
“Our goal is to be polite, be respectful of everyone,” the mayor said.
The overwhelming majority of those who got up to speak during the hour-and-a-half-long town hall were against the facility becoming any kind of homeless shelter. Many criticized members of the Assembly and vented their anger at a diffuse set of targets, from crime to homelessness to taxes.
“For all of you that are screaming in this direction, I think you should be screaming in that direction,” said Amber Brophy King, one of the people who spoke Friday, gesturing away from Bronson and toward fellow Midtown Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who was seated in the audience. Rivera and Zaletel, who is also head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, were disparaged repeatedly throughout the evening.
Though the Arctic Rec Center was mentioned in local considerations for a shelter site since 2021, it only came to the fore earlier in February after members of the Anchorage Assembly thought it a worthy potential recipient of capital budget dollars from the state. The nascent idea was to buy the building, along with the 16-acre lot it sits on from the church that listed it for sale, convert the facility into a 150-bed shelter, and potentially add more housing units to the property in the years ahead.
Many of those who spoke Friday were surprised and displeased by the prospect of a recreation center turning into a low-barrier shelter beside an area dense with single and multifamily homes, small businesses, an elementary school, park and church.
“I am here because my students matter … people in our city that are experiencing this matter. But placing this project here is not the answer,” said Kristen Dietsch, who teaches at the nearby Willow Crest Elementary School. She said her students spend much of their summers in the park and playground by the rec center. “They already have a hard life. Most of my students are in crisis. And they have had enough.”
Several people spoke about the potential impacts on businesses in the area, including a few who work or live on the east side of town, and shared their experiences from last summer when the Bronson administration directed people to a sanctioned campsite in Centennial Park.
“Being on Muldoon when they brought all them over to that campground, the place just went to hell in a hand basket overnight,” said Brad Lamb. “Feces. Human feces in my lot. Every day.”
While a few testifiers suggested that members of the Assembly were taking the rec center away from members, Faith Christian Community, which owns the facility, expressed an interest in selling the property to the Assembly as early as October 2021, in an intent to respond letter to the municipality from church leadership. At the time, conversations did not advance. The property was listed for sale in 2022 for $12.6 million and remains on the market.
Only a handful of those who got up to speak expressed sentiments resembling support for using the rec center to provide social services, and most of them put it in general terms about the need for compassionate approaches to homelessness or spreading the burden of care around the municipality more equitably.
As testimony went on, the event got more raucous, with audience members applauding loudly when they agreed, jeering or yelling disagreements if they didn’t. A few used their testimony to bring up past local controversies, and say if residents don’t want a homeless shelter to move into the neighborhood then they should vote for new Assembly members in the ongoing election.
“We voted in Mayor Bronson for his plan for homelessness,” said Vicky Clay, who said she lives on the East Side of town.
“I was never involved with politics until I started going to Assembly meetings with the mask mandate. I have never been so insulted by Assembly members who looked at us ...,” Clay said before she was drowned out by applause. “The only way we can change and bring Anchorage back is to get our votes out there.”
“The current Assembly could care less about our voices when it came to Sullivan Arena, when it came to the Golden Lion, when it came to all the other hotels,” said Brophy King, alluding to past plans to use public funds to purchase hotels and buildings for shelter and substance abuse treatment.
“This should encourage all of you in this room to vote, and vote right,” Brophy King said. “Don’t just get mad now; get mad always if you love this city.”
Neither Rivera nor Zaletel spoke during the event. The one other Assembly member who attended, the downtown district’s Dan Volland, said he thought the town hall was a missed opportunity to have a substantive community conversation on homelessness policy.
“I think the event felt more like a political rally than a productive conversation about the future of low-barrier shelter in Anchorage,” Volland said. “When you pulled up there were signs for candidates and ‘vote the Assembly out, save the Arctic Rec Center.’ This wasn’t a joint town hall that was set up by both the mayor and Assembly, where we could have had shared participation. I will say, there were quite a few speakers from the surrounding neighborhood. And there were also quite a few people who were not.”
Volland said he’s lukewarm on the idea of using the Arctic Rec Center as a 150-bed shelter in a highly residential neighborhood, and his biggest takeaway from testimony Friday night was the need for more mental health and substance abuse resources.
“Amazing facility and property, perhaps not the most ideal location,” Volland said. “One thing that I don’t want to do is export some of the problems that we’re seeing with mass shelter at the Sullivan to a different part of the community.”
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance did not attend the town hall. In an interview Monday, she said it was unfortunate the mayor and his staff had so quickly made an election-season issue out of a preliminary policy proposal.
“It just really was based on misinformation about the situation,” LaFrance said of the town hall. “I’m disappointed by the mayor’s actions. He had the opportunity to help our community make progress on this issue. He could have chosen a more neutral venue, he could have used his resources to make people understand the Arctic Rec Center is just an idea.”
As far as turning the Arctic Rec Center idea into an actual policy, there’s is no firm proposal on the table, according to LaFrance. The Assembly is holding a work session on Friday to discuss several general shelter proposals, as well as a potential overhaul to the process by which community groups and stakeholders are engaged ahead of site selection decisions.
At the end of Friday’s meeting, Bronson struck a diplomatic note, telling the crowd that he and the Assembly are generally aligned on their common work of keeping people housed and preventing others from falling into homelessness, even if there are disagreements.
“The Assembly and I, we can kind of fight about the sheltering component, but remember we agree a lot,” Bronson said. “We agree on a lot of this stuff. So I don’t think we need to be beating each other up too terribly much.”
There is an immediate imperative for something to change, he added: Anchorage is facing several deadlines in its current shelter configuration that, without any adjustments, could put hundreds of people out of the Sullivan Arena and hotels that are currently being used for medium-term housing but soon will need to close their doors.
“I’m always worried about the alligator that’s closest to the boat. The alligator that’s closest to the boat is that on April 30th, we have 776 people, very problematic people, and they’re going to hit the street,” Bronson said, referring to the Sullivan Arena’s tentative closure date. “That’s a bit of an apocalypse.”