PALMER — With the 2024 Arctic Winter Games in Mat-Su just months away, construction crews are racing the coming snowfall to put finishing touches on updates to facilities and pushing to recruit more than 2,000 volunteers needed for the event.
Organizers now say the weeklong event is expected to cost $7 million, up from earlier estimates of $4 million to $6 million.
Typically held every two years, the games include 20 Arctic-focused indoor and outdoor sports including hockey, alpine and cross-country skiing, basketball and Dene Games. To ready Matanuska-Susitna Borough facilities to handle the load, officials are funding a series of major and minor updates, including fresh parking lot construction at Government Peak Recreation Area, new downhill ski slopes at Skeetawk Ski Area, and small changes to school buildings that will help provide lodging for athletes and others.
The borough-owned recreation area will host cross-country ski events, while downhill skiing will be at Skeetawk, a nonprofit area in Hatcher Pass. While most sports will be hosted in Mat-Su, biathlon will be at Kincaid Park, while speed skating and figure skating will be held at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in Eagle River.
Organizers are also facing another challenge: fielding volunteers. To operate, the games need about 2,000 volunteers over age 12, with hopes that most will commit to at least 12 hours of work. So far about 900 people have expressed interest, though few of those have completed the required background check or child safety training, officials said.
The 2024 games will be from March 10 to March 16. Teams travel to the games from about a dozen regions across the circumpolar north, including Greenland and throughout Canada, and compete for medals given in the form of gold, silver and bronze ulus.
Mat-Su already hosts winter events including the Iditarod restart, usually in Willow, as well as the Iron Dog snowmachine race, Iditasport, Iditarod Trail Invitational and cross-country skiing regional races.
Alaska hosts the Arctic Winter Games about once every decade, and last held them in Fairbanks in 2014. The games slated for Whitehorse in 2020 were postponed due to COVID-19 and were instead held early this year in Wood Buffalo, Alberta.
Most of the events are free to attend, with tickets required for the opening and closing ceremonies, some medal rounds and cultural events. Tickets go on sale Nov. 15 and are expected to sell out. Prices vary by event.
That $7 million price tag has come as a surprise for organizers. Based on the cost of the 2014 games with a 20% buffer for inflation, that number recently ballooned in the face of soaring prices for even basic supplies, said Amy Spargo, volunteer president of Mat-Su’s games host society.
“With inflation and COVID, and supply chain issues, and shipping issues, and everything being so high — the world has changed,” she said.
Some of the biggest costs come from surprising places, she said, like providing transportation around the Mat-Su area and out to events in Anchorage and Eagle River, as well as supplying beds for athletes.
Since the area lacks a comprehensive public bus system, organizers will instead be constantly running charter buses between all venues and the school-based athlete villages. That comes with an estimated price tag of $500,000 — the biggest single expense for the games, Spargo said.
Because the Mat-Su does not have many hotel rooms, athletes and some of their support crews will be housed in the district’s schools, which will be closed for an extended spring break to allow for games use, while organizers are working to source short-term rentals for everyone else. That means spending $350,000 to purchase 2,000 twin-sized frames and mattresses that will be set up temporarily in five middle and high schools. Those will be resold after the event, hopefully to a future games host committee, she said.
Government funding and in-kind support have footed the bill for about 60% of the costs, Spargo said.
The Alaska Legislature has provided $3.5 million toward the costs. Additional funding has come from the borough, which expects the games’ thousands of athletes, support staff and spectators to bring upward of $10 million into the local economy. In addition to a $250,000 grant directly to organizers and in-kind donations such as free use of schools, the borough also paid for updates to Government Peak Recreation Area and at Skeetawk.
Those updates aren’t just temporary fixes that will go away with the games, Spargo said.
Expanded parking at the recreation area will help alleviate the parking pinch felt there during large local meets, borough officials said.
Crews at Skeetawk are putting the finishing touches on a pair of 700-vertical-foot runs needed for the competition, accessible all season by snowcat and part of the area’s long-term plan to install a second midmountain lift line, said Megan Justus, the ski area’s general manager. Heated indoor bathrooms have also newly replaced portable toilets, she said.
All told, the borough has granted Skeetawk about $725,000 for various improvements designed to meet the needs of the games, Justus said.
“The games certainly helped catalyze a lot of infrastructure here,” she said. “The borough’s support really helped us.”
Borough schools have also benefited from a few updates designed to serve athlete needs, including new kitchen equipment, blinds on some classroom windows, and shower curtains planned or installed in locker rooms, Spargo said.
Not all updates will be done before the games star, including a new entrance road at Skeetawk designed specifically for buses.
The road will not be completed this year because of a delayed lease agreement with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which controls the land around the ski area, Justus said. Because the 7% grade at the current entrance is too steep for safe bus use in winter, organizers will instead be running shuttle vans from the nearby Government Peak campground and picnic area at Mile 11 of Hatcher Pass Road.
Volunteer recruiting events are underway now in Mat-Su, Eagle River and Anchorage.
At one such event last week in the upstairs lounge at the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla, about 35 potential volunteers snacked on pizza and soda while listening to games officials explain what they need, including 350 people just to set up and tear down beds in schools.
Cathy Knapper of Wasilla attended with her husband and adult son, who all plan to volunteer during the games. Knapper said she sees working with the games as a way to help visitors experience the Mat-Su region.
CoLene and Cory Smith are spearheading the bed set-up effort and said they’ll be tapping into their large Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volunteer network for help.
“We’re actively trying to pull everyone from our congregation to do this,” CoLene Smith said. “We can’t do everything — but that’s a big thing we can do.”