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Bringing the Wild West back to Alaska

  • Author: Stephen Merrill
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 17
  • Published May 17

The Anchorage skyline is reflected in the waters of Cook Inlet just after sunset on January 6, 2014. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Amid Alaska's deep recession with no end in sight, it is the city of Anchorage that suffers the most. Beyond losing jobs and longtime residents on a sharp curve downward, Anchorage has been afflicted by a spike in crime, including violent crime. Downtown Anchorage is dying slowly.

That is quite a conundrum for a place that fate seemed destined to reward as beautiful and prosperous forever, given what the natural world already provides. The remedy I'd like to suggest for Southcentral Alaska is one that has brought sudden, massive economic growth to places far less likely to succeed than Anchorage.

My recommended solution is to allow people to enjoy a peaceful hedonism that most nations still prohibit in theory. The Anchorage Strip would be just one district of the city. There, casinos, brothels, cannabis clubs, liquor and other human passions would be met for the going price.

Of course, Wild West hedonism in the big city is nothing new to Alaska, though it's largely suppressed now. Back in the day, Fourth Avenue was wilder than anything found in Las Vegas today. But the big party did not bring visitors to the city on its own. It was the fur, gold and oil that brought the money to Anchorage to spend.

So, what has changed since then that would make an Anchorage Strip a real success? Just addicting a large sector of the local population to gambling and associated pastimes is no plan for success, but failure instead.

The difference today is global travel on a large scale. That modernization combines with the shape of the globe to make Anchorage an ideal location for a good party, interrupting long flights across time zones. Each day, thousands upon thousands of Americans are flying from the East Coast to Japan, China and other points in Asia. The same is true for travelers in reverse, coming to Boston, New York or Washington, D.C. These are the people who have the money to truly enjoy a wild trip to Anchorage.

When Asia-North America flights to or from the East Coast used to require a stop for refueling, hundreds of thousands of passengers would pass through the North Terminal at the Anchorage airport with only handfuls of people ever leaving the terminal on the ground. This is because the globe is much more quickly flown across its top. The shape of the Earth still makes the Anchorage airport today the absolute global hub for airborne trade shipments of every sort. Anchorage lies no more than a 10-hour flight from 90 percent of the industrialized world's economies.

There are still plenty of big passenger planes that do not fly routes longer than 4,000 miles at a time. They follow the money. There are many, many well-off people on long trips who would stop by wild Anchorage for something new entirely if given the chance.

In Japan and China, brothels remain unlawful, unlike many parts of Asia. Both nations ban cannabis. Both are true for the East Coast, too. Gambling is outlawed in China. Yet the Chinese love to gamble. In the space of 20 years, the Macau gambling resort, located a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, has already become twice the size of Las Vegas in amounts wagered.

Traditionally illegal in Japan, a new casino district with restrained rules is coming online soon to compete with the all-powerful gangster class there. The new gambling district near Tokyo will be no match though for the appetite of the Japanese people.

So let the flood of air passengers to Anchorage's north terminal resume, this time with most getting off their plane to enjoy a new Alaska. Because the good times can start rolling anew in Anchorage, like nowhere else. Pass the few new laws needed to see if the casinos and high-rollers come on their own. There is little cost or risk to this high-reward plan.

Stephen Merrill is an Anchorage attorney and an author on sociology and politics making the case for libertarian government. He served as a Navy JAG Corps officer and then as a top-secret cleared intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve.

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@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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