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Centennial reflections: Was all that oil money blessing or curse for Anchorage?

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 20, 2015

As a contribution to Anchorage's centennial summer, Cyrano's Theater Co. is presenting 10 plays covering the 100 years of the centennial, 10 decades in 10 weeks. Last week was 1975 to 1985, a crucial period when city leaders, and ordinary folks, had to decide how to use the bonanza money generated by pipeline construction and the subsequent stream of oil tax dollars.

Cyrano's enlisted Maia Nolan-Partnow, director of sales and special content for Alaska Dispatch News, to write the script, and she produced a fast-paced vehicle to represent the frenetic, super-heated financial and emotional boom that overtook the city during pipeline days, read with panache by Cyrano's players. Nolan-Partnow, who has a master's degree in creative writing from UAA, framed her story around the question of how responsibly the city performed in seizing the opportunity afforded by the sudden flow of "petrobucks." The actors took the parts of seasoned lawyers, meeting in a bar to reminisce about their beginnings in the All America city when oil was king and the sky seemed the limit. The playwright had them put the town on trial.

And how did the town do? In 1970, when the famous North Slope lease sale had whetted everyone's appetite, and Alaskans held their collective breath while high-level councils crafted the Native claims settlement, Lewis Lapham, just beginning his long tenure with Harper's Magazine, wrote a piece on what was happening here -- "Alaska: Politicians and Natives, Money and Oil," May 1970. No one had a clue, he said, about the nature of what was about to overtake the state and its people; no one was prepared, no one seemed to have much vision, just itchy fingers. There are those who were observing then who are still observing now, and think Lapham had it just about right.

Was there any vision in Anchorage? For starters, the old borough and the former city had just merged in 1975, on the third try, to create the present municipality. Even before the full impact of pipeline construction hit, the two political entities were getting too big to function effectively in a competitive mode.

But Nolan-Partnow wrote into her dialogue references to the "town that grew up too fast." Law enforcement seemed to have trouble keeping up with the rowdy bars, busy prostitutes and high stakes card games that ran rampant through the city's understory.

These were the years, too, when serial killer Robert Hansen preyed on young women and prostitutes in the city. Less spectacular but perhaps more significant in the long run, the prosecutor cited the many Anchorage citizens who did not profit from the big paycheck-big spending binge. There were many living in trailer parks, holding the low-end jobs no one else wanted, watching their prospects dwindle as prices rose steadily with the influx of fast money. Residents who had decent jobs wondered whether they should quit whatever they were doing and join those flocking in from Outside, headed for the union hiring halls and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. offices.

These years saw the beginning of the newspaper war between Bob Atwood's Anchorage Daily Times and Kay Fanning's Anchorage Daily News, a war Atwood lost after the McClatchy family purchased ADN in 1979. The Times seemed often to be a mouthpiece of the oil industry, and in 1976 Anchorage-born Howard Weaver and four others started the Alaska Advocate to provide fuller, more aggressive investigative journalism than either the Times or the struggling Daily News. The Advocate was a breath of stimulating air, but it folded with the arrival of the McClatchy chain.

And the positives? The Project 80s facilities – Egan Convention Center, Loussac Library, Performing Arts Center – and the Sullivan Arena – most would deem successes. South Anchorage blossomed. Alaska Repertory Theater started in 1976 and flourished for a while. The bike trail system matured, and the network of lighted ski trails grew. The steak potage at Clinkerdagger's was tasty, and it was fun to watch the chefs at 13 Coins. But Nolan-Partnow left out creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund by constitutional amendment in 1976, Anchorage voters joining the heavy majority.

Was the arrival of Big Oil and its money a blessing or a curse for Alaska's premier city? Nolan-Partnow left the answer for the audience/jury to decide.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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