Alaska News

Another round of bar break violence has business owners worrying about downtown Anchorage's image

First there was the night, at the end of November, when police donned riot gear to disperse a drunken crowd from a Fourth Avenue intersection downtown.

On Dec. 21, on the same block in the fledgling hours of another Sunday, a 24-year-old man was shot in the torso on a crowded sidewalk. He told police he had no idea who shot him.

Then, early last Sunday morning, gunshots shattered thousands of dollars' worth of window panes at Polar Bear Gifts, down Fourth Avenue. A Lincoln Navigator sped away with bullet holes in its window, but the caller who alerted police would say nothing more.

Michelle Cox, manager of Polar Bear Gifts, said nothing like it has happened since an 8-foot stuffed brown bear toy was stolen from in front of the store nearly a decade ago.

To some, the incidents add up to an impression that after midnight on weekends, the streets of downtown Anchorage have become a place where gunfire is as common as ice melt.

Others say that impression itself is the most dangerous threat to the health of downtown.

At the root of the trouble, police say, is bar break: The time, around 2 a.m., when alcohol-serving establishments downtown close, sending hundreds to thousands of drinking patrons onto the sidewalk. While they're shivering on the asphalt waiting for rides, tensions that simmered inside can erupt.


At best, police officers describe the bar break scene as "controlled chaos," says APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro.

The recent string of incidents prompted APD to step up its presence in the area she says is the center of the problem, near a new nightclub.

For the past few weekends, officers have been parking their patrol cars near Fourth Avenue and D Street and conducting foot patrols in the area between about 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., Castro said.

"Even with the added enforcement, we are still responding to shootings and problems downtown," she said.

Castro said the area around Fourth and D has seen an increase in "shootings, assaults and other disturbances" since the August opening of playHouse, a bar and nightclub in the space once occupied by Club Soraya.

"Is the problem the clientele or the establishment?" Castro wrote in an email. "Or is it a culmination of factors in the area (such as other nearby bars or problem-making patrons on their way back to their vehicles in the parking lot nearby)? It is too soon to tell."

Bar managers like playHouse's TJ Carmen counter that they can run tight security inside their clubs but can't be responsible for everything that happens outside. Pinning incidents like the Dec. 21 shooting that happened down the block from playHouse on his establishment is unfair, Carmen said.

Carmen says playHouse employs 10 security personnel on weekend nights, pats down patrons and uses a metal detector wand, among other security measures.

The nightclub, which operates under Club Soraya's liquor license in a transfer-of-management arrangement, plays dance, house and electronic music and features local and traveling DJs, and is admittedly courting a young clientele, Carmen said.

Carmen is aware that playHouse is under close scrutiny.

"I'd like to be in business at this time next year, and for many years after that," he said.

Some downtown business owners tell stories of mopping up blood from the sidewalks in front of their businesses after rowdy weekends or finding that people have spit all over their glass, left broken alcohol bottles in parking lots and alleyways -- or worse.

But others say that downtown, with its concentration of nightlife, has always been a little salty.

Bonnie Welsh, general manager of the Mad Hatter, a Fourth Avenue business that sells everything from snowmachine mono suits to steampunk top hats, has the sense that nothing fundamentally different is happening downtown today. Young people have always gone out to bars to have fun that occasionally ends in a fight, she says.

What feels novel to her is how often the fights end in gunfire.

"There's a Wild West feeling," she said.

John Screnock, the owner of Alaska Treasures, an art and gift gallery sandwiched between the Avenue Bar and Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse, says his business hasn't been directly affected by the near-riot or shooting in the area. While other businesspeople have advocated for increased police presence in the area, Screnock says that's a cost ultimately borne by taxpayers. He just wants people to police themselves.


"Government cannot solely control us," he said. "We have to control ourselves. How can we do that? That's the question."

The biggest danger many feel is that downtown Anchorage will be painted in broad strokes as a place that's unsafe to visit.

That's untrue and bad for business, said Chris Schutte, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.

"The reality is violent incidents happen downtown but are infrequent," he said.

When a few operators whose reputations had been attached to high-profile violent incidents closed -- including Rumrunners and Platinum Jaxx -- "there was a noticeable difference in the tenor of nightlife" downtown, Schutte said.

"But if we're seeing anything, it's that the problems are rotating rather than going away," he said.

What Schutte thinks about more often is the anecdotal stories he hears of people who no longer go downtown because of safety concerns.

That scenario hurts businesses and compels business owners to want change, he said.

"Late-night safety concerns aren't just on people's radars -- people are really frustrated right now," he said. "We're really at a point where we're just saying, what now? We can't stand this behavior any longer."

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.