PALMER — Thousands of young winter sports athletes and supporters from northern countries are expected to descend on Mat-Su in March 2024 when the borough hosts the Arctic Winter Games for the first time.
A host agreement signing ceremony is scheduled Friday morning at Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly chambers with members of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, borough officials and the Mat-Su Host Society, the nonprofit board of directors organizing the event.
About 40 people are expected to attend, plus some from Canada who are participating remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions in that country.
Organizers of the international circumpolar sport and cultural event for young athletes say they hope to make use of a wide spectrum of still-evolving venues — indoors and out — when the games begin the week after the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a popular draw to the area.
Mat-Su already hosts winter events including the Iditarod restart, usually in Willow, as well as the Iron Dog Race, Iditasport, Iditarod Trail Invitational and cross-country skiing regional races.
Now the borough joins past Alaska hosts Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and Chugiak/Eagle River to put on games that focus not only on athleticism but camaraderie and cultural heritage.
“I’m constantly impressed, when you mention the Arctic Winter Games, how many people have a connection to previous ones,” said Kerry Quade, Arctic Winter Games general manager, hired in October. “I do think it will increase tourism and also the international contingents will bring their own tourism interests.”
Amid pandemic precautions last year, Mat-Su became the first host to use a virtual tour to present a location for review.
Held every two years, the Arctic Winter Games attract up to 2,000 participants, about 1,000 support staff and others, and another 2,000 volunteers.
Along with Alaska, athletes from the circumpolar north will travel from the Yukon; Northwest Territories; northern Alberta; Nunavut; Nunavik in northern Quebec; Greenland; Yamal (Russia); and Sapmi (Scandinavia).
The weeklong competition features 21 sports from skiing, skating and hockey to wrestling, badminton and gymnastics, as well as traditional Arctic sports, Dene games and regional sports including dog mushing.
Quade said athletes will stay in a “village” centered in Palmer, making use of area schools that are empty during spring break. Venues include Wasilla’s Curtis D. Menard Sports Complex, Glenn Massay Theater at Mat-Su College, and local high school gyms and auditoriums, as well as Government Peak Recreation Area and Skeetawk ski area in Hatcher Pass.
Others will stay at a combination of hotels, motels and vacation rentals or guest houses, potentially some in Anchorage, she said.
There are still unresolved questions surrounding venues. Skeetawk, a nonprofit alpine ski area, would need to add a second chairlift to meet the needs of the games. Otherwise, backup snowsports venues could include Arctic Valley or even Alyeska in Girdwood.
The Valley also lacks a biathlon range, Quade said. Other options are using an established range at Kincaid Park or building a temporary one in Mat-Su.
The Arctic Winter Games haven’t been held in Alaska since 2014, when Fairbanks hosted.
Borough officials say their ability to host the games was boosted by recent additions to the Valley’s winter sports attractions, including Skeetawk and Government Peak. The Menard Center includes an ice rink, a soccer field and capacity for 5,000 guests.
The borough assembly in February 2021 voted to move forward with the bid and agreed to appropriate $250,000 for startup and organizational costs, according to a statement at the time. The Fairbanks Winter Games Host Society set aside an extra $50,000 in proceeds from their games.
The borough was awarded the games in April 2021, Quade said.
The total cost of hosting the games could be as much as $4 million to $6 million, borough officials say. That’s expected to largely be covered through grants, sponsorships and in-kind donations.
Organizers are hoping to attract 2,000 volunteers with an outreach that begins toward the end of the year, Quade said. Positions needed range from merchandise sales and hospitality lounge help to security and timer operators.
That effort will be “massive,” she said.
Another challenge: transporting all those people around the borough or potentially to and from Anchorage. Organizers are working with state transportation officials as well as local transportation providers to come up with a plan, Quade said.
“There’s no one entity that will make this happen,” she said.