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Here’s an idea for bringing back some of what was once special about Anchorage

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 30
  • Published March 29

A proposed downtown mushing district would center on an arch at the start of Fur Rondy and Iditarod sled dog races, at Fourth Avenue and D Street, shown here in a rendering provided by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. (Courtesy of Anchorage Downtown Partnership)

Jim Huettl remembers the days when the Fur Rondy sled dog races brought Anchorage to a standstill. I do, too.

No Alaska sports rivalry was bigger than that of George Attla, known as the Huslia Hustler, and Dr. Roland Lombard, the gentleman veterinarian from Wayland, Massachusetts. Their comments on the race made headlines. Daily split times filled the front pages of the two daily newspapers.

We got school off for Fur Rondy. Friends stayed with us from other towns. I remember as a child being overwhelmed by the crowds downtown. After seeing the start in person we could watch the rest of the race on live television (except for Campbell Tract, which announcers called "the backcountry.")

"It was so exciting. I'd take off work. I'd never miss a race," said Huettl, who saw his first Rondy race in 1972.

Those were the days when Alaska was farther from the rest of the world. Local media and Alaska events were bigger because we weren't in the stream of national news. We made our own.

Professional sports aired weeks after the games were played. My dad would amaze my brother and me with his uncanny predictions of what was going to happen in games we were watching (which he already knew).

Going downtown was a thrill, even into my teenage years, with midnight movies at the Fourth Avenue Theatre, under the blinking Big Dipper set in its indigo ceiling. During the day business filled the streets and in the evening residents came down. This was before the tourists and T-shirt shops.

It's not like that anymore. Anchorage sprawled away from downtown and the city no longer has a center. The rest of the world swept us into its mainstream. Technology and national businesses made Anchorage community traditions quaint and irrelevant.

When the world shrank, Alaska shrank more. We went from being an outpost to cul-de-sac.

Huettl was part of the transformation of the city. He helped run one the biggest engineering firms in town during the biggest years of growth. The H in USKH stood for his name.

Jim Huettl, mushing district coordinator for the Fur Rondezvous, stands outside the winter festival’s headquarters on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Huettl would like to dedicate two blocks of 4th Avenue, where both the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Fur Rondezvous Open World Championships start, to mushing. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As a businessman and architect, his timing was perfect. He even retired and sold at the right time, in 2010. But he regrets how the city turned out. The low density and long drives are not an improvement.

And downtown is dead.

In retirement, Huettl has in mind to bring back some of the city's uniqueness. As a board member of the nonprofit that puts on the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival, he has taken on leadership of a project to create a mushing district downtown with a commemorative arch, memorials and signs to celebrate what happens here.

The arch would span the start of the Rondy and Iditarod Trail sled dog races, at Fourth Avenue and D Street. For the Iditarod, it would pair with the burled arch at the finish line in Nome. A stainless steel dog team would arc over the street like Santa's flying reindeer.

At street level, brass plaques would tell visitors about great mushers from the past and signs would explain the sport. Brass pawprints set in the sidewalk would trace the route of the races downtown. Residents could buy a paw bearing their names to support the project, which will cost about $500,000, but is not asking for government money.

The idea has been discussed for several years and has many supporters. Huettl said he is only one of many working on it. He's ready to raise the money and move forward. He is waiting for approval from City Hall.

All the municipality would give up would be the four parking spaces at the intersection where the arch lands on the sidewalk. That shouldn't be a problem. With so few people going downtown, there's always plenty of parking on those blocks.

Huettl doesn't pretend the project will bring back Fur Rondy fever or the return the focus of the city to downtown. But it will recover some of the pride.

Downtown is the front parlor where we welcome visitors making their trip of a lifetime to see the mythical Alaska they've read about or seen on reality TV. That's embarrassing. The parlor needs a make-over.

"I've come downtown to see the tourists, and in large part they're just walking around looking for something to do," Huettl said.

At the least, the arch would create a great selfie setting. It would be in a million photos.

"Some people think it's old fashioned. That arches are things that were done years ago," Huettl said. But that hasn't stopped other cities from creating these special districts.

"Maybe I'm dreaming big here," he said. "They all had to start out with something like this. If people think it isn't modern — no one uses gaslights anymore, but San Diego has the Gaslight District."

Mushing may be going the way of gaslights. The warmed climate has forced cancellation or shortening of the Fur Rondy races with increasing frequency. Lack of snow has diverted the Iditarod, too.

A changing culture threatens the sport, too, as Americans think of dogs like children. Animals rights are hard to comply with in a musher's dog lot.

But that could also bring mushing back home. The Iditarod doesn't need to be a national event. It could be our event.

The test Alaska faces — and the proposed mushing district is but a tiny part of it — is whether we're really Alaskans anymore. Can we still come together with the excitement of common cause?

I've heard elders who were part of the dynamic changes of 40 years ago speaking dispiritedly. I never thought I'd hear some of these leaders warn against investing here.

Maybe this little project downtown can be an antidote, showing we do still care.

I like it that these boosters aren't asking for government money. We're more than ready for a community project where folks pull together to build something in pride rather than with hands outstretched.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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