Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and members of his economic development team traveled recently to Kansas and Oklahoma to see how two similar U.S. cities tackled a couple of big issues facing Anchorage: housing and downtown development.
On the trip, paid in part by the nonprofit Rasmuson Foundation, the city officials joined representatives of Anchorage nonprofits and businesses for two days in Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City. On Aug. 3 and 4, the group followed a jam-packed itinerary, attending tours and sitting down with local civic and business leaders there.
The two cities compare with Anchorage, organizers said. Wichita is similar in size, and there was interest in its success with downtown housing projects and redevelopment, said Diane Kaplan, president of the Rasmuson Foundation.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City, a larger metropolitan area, has a resource-based economy like Anchorage and has used tax incentives to support downtown housing development over a short period of time, said Chris Schutte, Berkowitz's director of economic and community development. Anchorage has considered tax incentives to encourage development.
Ten people went on the trip in addition to Berkowitz, Schutte and Kaplan: the others included Anchorage Assembly Member Bill Evans; Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority; Michael Prozeralik, chair of the board of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.; Michele Brown, president of United Way of Anchorage; Carol Gore and Tyler Robinson, both of Cook Inlet Housing Authority; and Greg Cerbana of Weidner Apartment Homes.
Generally, the trip might be seen as the latest indicator in Anchorage of a mounting push to strategically build more housing, particularly in the downtown core.
In interviews, Anchorage participants in the trip said they were impressed with the level of coordination in Wichita and Oklahoma City between public officials, development authorities, builders and nonprofits.
"In Anchorage, that's never been the case," Kaplan said. "We've had these silos of interest … the municipality has been an enforcement division, not a development division, in my opinion."
A copy of the itinerary, provided by the Rasmuson Foundation, showed about 10 hours of back-to-back meetings and tours in each city, including with the mayors of Wichita and Oklahoma City and with civic and business leaders. There were tours of housing complexes in Oklahoma City and an "Innovation Campus" at Wichita State University, and briefings on downtown master plans and development.
Schutte said he and others were "blown away" by the level of unity in both cities. He said he recalled a presentation where a president of a bank sat next to a city chamber representative, who was in turn sitting next to a city planner. All of them spoke about ways to make their community better, he said.
"(Both cities) really made the point of saying, 'We have gotten tired over the last few years of watching young people move to other metropolitan areas,' " said Robinson, development finance manager at Cook Inlet Housing Authority.
Brown, of United Way, said that for her, the trip solidified the sense that Anchorage's approach to solving housing problems -- which she described as "lists of recommendations or one-off solutions" -- won't be enough to make changes.
She and Schutte also said the trip highlighted the need to improve the quality of data on housing and development. While Wichita reported 263 new residential units in its downtown corridor in the last year, with an additional 550 under construction, Schutte said Anchorage isn't tracking that kind of information -- though in any case, there's very little activity.
Berkowitz wasn't available for comment Friday, but Schutte said the next step will be to gather the group together and hold a debriefing session to discuss ideas for moving forward. There was also a consensus that similar trips should happen on a more regular basis in the future.
"Living in isolation is not necessarily the best way to promote innovation," said Evans, who represents South Anchorage on the Assembly.
Last week's trip has been in the works since May, and Kaplan said it stemmed from the Rasmuson Foundation's longtime focus on homelessness. In recent years, she said, the foundation has "been persuaded, and learned, a big part of the homeless problem is the lack of housing."
In the last two years, Rasmuson and United Way helped spearhead a coalition called Housing Anchorage, focusing on research and organizing community discussions.
At the same time, a group formed through the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s "Live. Work. Play." initiative took up housing as a priority, particularly from a business perspective.
The election of the new mayor, Kaplan said, convinced her to put together the trip.
"It seemed like a moment when we should jump on it," Kaplan said, adding that Berkowitz has made housing a "mandate."
Berkowitz, Schutte and Evans reported the trip through gift disclosure notices to the city clerk's office. Their costs for air travel, meals and ground transportation were estimated at $2,300.
Members of the group traveled by private plane and charter, which Kaplan said was meant to cut costs. She didn't have a final estimate on the overall cost of the trip.
The foundation did not pay for lodging, and city spokesman Myer Hutchinson said the city spent about $800 on hotel rooms for two nights.
Since 2001, the Rasmuson Foundation has given about $24.6 million in major capital grants to housing projects, according to Cassandra Stalzer, Rasmuson spokeswoman.
Brown, of United Way, said she wished there was more focus on low-income housing on the trip. But she said the city is also intensely focused on boosting production of all kinds of housing, and the question now is how to do it in a coordinated way.
"If we want to start intentionally working on getting projects done, who needs to contribute to make that happen? How do we facilitate land being more readily available?" Brown said.
On the flight back, Brown said people were looking at maps of Anchorage, looking for vacant lots and places to build.