Q: A couple decades ago, Anchorage’s downtown was booming. How do we get back to that — and what actions would you take as mayor to help us get there?
Dave Bronson: I’m a commercial aviator, and there’s kind of a rule in flying. In short, if you do, if you change something on the airplane and something really bad happens, immediately reverse what you just did. What we have to do is we have to reverse what we did in the shutdown. We have to just, we’ve got to allow our entrepreneurs and our small business men and women to run their businesses, free of encumbrances from the mayor’s office — or in, frankly, as much of government as we can.
I’m a small government guy, and, and, quite frankly, local government was overreaching far before COVID came on the scene. So open the city, get rid of the mandates, encourage those people with comorbidities to stay home until they got their second vaccine. I think that’s common-sensical. I don’t think we should have shut down the city, even though I am kind of sympathetic to politicians — early, early on, a year ago, (we) didn’t know what was going on. But this notion that a local government can shut down our churches or schools or government — certainly, they can shut down schools. But to shut down our private businesses, that’s, that was constitutionally untenable, frankly.
But anyways, to answer the economic question, yes, open up the city. And then find as much money as we can to stimulate these small businesses that are still in business. My plan is it that a stimulus plan is based mathematically on the notion that for that portion of that time you were shut down as a small business. Your property taxes will be rebated, or you’ll get an abatement going forward on your next tax bill. But again, there’s all delays in these things, and these small businesses, they need help fast, because we’ve got to — at the end of the day, we’ve got to get people back to work. And that’s what drives in the economy. So that’s my plan — to get back to business and get as much money into the hands of back into the hands of small businessmen and women that we can.
Forrest Dunbar: That’s one of the central banks of our campaign, and you’re right that right now, particularly in the COVID times. It just doesn’t feel like it used to. But I think that you know you can look around to other parts of the country and see how other cities have done this. It’s not rocket science, it’s about having better pedestrian facilities, it’s about making people feel safe, particularly at night. There was a great presentation, I don’t know if you got a chance to go, but the AEDC brought up a consultant at one of their luncheons — I think it was two years ago, might have been three years ago. They spoke in detail about how you do this, how other cities have done this.
A big part of it is creating housing in your downtown core, and of course the Assembly passed a 12-year property tax abatement for people that build certain kinds of dense housing. And so I think the combination of having more housing downtown, better pedestrian facilities. Of course, we already moved the police department downtown, which we think has some positive effects too.
And then, you know, I, one thing I talked a lot about is creating a sense of indigenous place. I think that is if you look at the surveys from visitors as the number one thing they asked for. And there are things we could do with signage and partnering with organizations like the Heritage Center and the museum, to really create that sense of place and culture. So it’s true that things are looking pretty rough right now, but I think there’s just a ton of potential there. I mean, you have all this history along Fourth Avenue, you have some new housing projects that are going in, you have some municipal facilities and properties that I think can be leveraged.
You have organizations like the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and Amanda Moser, that I think are really on track, and I share their vision for doing things as simple as painting facades. You’ve probably seen that Instagram page, “Keep Anchorage Beige,” which is sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I do think that Anchorage needs to rebrand in a really serious way. And I think that we were already, sort of, we were moving in that direction. We hadn’t gone as far as fast enough as I would have liked, but we sort of had some of the foundation in place. And I think we’re moving in the right direction, and then COVID hit, and has thrown a wrench in things. But I think given the amount of federal aid that’s going to come in, the potential to attract more independent travelers, this year and next, I think there’s an opportunity for a real sort of Anchorage downtown spring.
Q: How do we make progress on dealing with homelessness in Anchorage?
Forrest Dunbar: You know, we’ve learned a lot down at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter facility. And we know that the FEMA funds that are going to conclude, likely in September, there might be some ways to extend the facility a little bit. But it looks like by September, we need to have a concrete way to decompress and decommission that that project. But we’ve learned things about how to connect people to resources, having a centralized resource hub that quickly moves people out of shelter and to transitional housing, treatment and permanent supportive housing.
And so I think we’ve seen some really positive developments. Weidner Properties and Rasmuson Foundation are purchasing, instead of the municipality, purchasing the old Bean’s Cafe property to turn it into that kind of resource hub. Catholic Social Services said they’re never going back to the old “240 people crammed into that small building” model, and that’s actually a good thing. It definitely creates some challenges in terms of where folks can be and where they can be housed or sheltered, but it also will help, I think, reduce the amount of pressure on that neighborhood, and also that sort of negative example of what it looks like to have a homeless shelter in your neighborhood.
Because in a lot of other parts of the country, a homeless shelter isn’t as impactful on the rest of neighborhood as that Third and Karluk facility was. So I think that having that more positive example down at Third and Karluk and making real progress there will go a long ways toward recovering some of the trust among the public.
I’ll say that I’ve always been sort of skeptical of the idea of new, large-scale homeless shelters. I prefer a distributed housing model that uses more voucher programs. And right now, we have about 500 of these active around the city where people are renting hotel rooms or renting apartments. The most successful, of course, is the VASH voucher, the Veterans Administration voucher, where if you live near a major apartment building in Anchorage, there’s a good chance that there are people in that apartment building that used to be homeless, or that would be thought of as housing insecure. But now they’re tenants like anybody else, because they have that locking door. They can get a good night’s sleep. And they have this sort of voucher program.
The municipality has also learned a lot working with the Alex Hotel and the Aviator Hotel, which is actually where a lot of folks experiencing homelessness are now residing. And we haven’t gotten anywhere near the kind of complaints around those hotels as other places. Because again, once people have a locking door and they can avoid some of the pathologies that develop in a really crowded shelter, and they can get away from people that are abusing that and they can be connected to services, you can see a transformation.
So we have additional federal funds on the way, we have alcohol tax funds now for the first time ever — you know, this is the first time the municipality has actually spent any of its own money. And then we have this additional private investment. So I think that there are real opportunities to gradually step down the Sullivan arena, and get people placed in transitional and permanent supportive housing. And that really is the solution over the long term it’s not large shelters. It’s a process by which we quickly give you an adequate shelters and into housing, and that distinction between shelter and housing is really important.
And I think that that’s something that, you know, I think we were actually making some progress on this again before COVID. And COVID really threw a wrench in the machine, but like I said, we’ve learned a lot. And I think we’ll be able to demonstrate to people that we can do this in a responsible way.
The Golden Lion should never have been included in that plan. The Golden Lion is a separate kind of facility. I lived down the street from the Salvation Army facility that is quite similar, that is that kind of in-person, inpatient residential treatment facility, and you wouldn’t even know it’s there. I bike by it all the time; you wouldn’t even know it was that kind of facility.
And so I’m optimistic that the Golden Lion project will be very different from how it was portrayed. And it kicked up a lot of this anger and animosity, but that a lot of that was based on, frankly, lies from certain people, and then also misconceptions that, you know, were understandable given the way the project was rolled out.
Dave Bronson: The homeless issue is this big thing, and that’s about 3,000 people, roughly. And when we do the point-in-time counts. They’ve got the experts have a handle on this Catholic social service to mention just one of them. The vagrancy issue is what I’m talking about. And I keep asking for a better word, maybe a little more polite word, but let’s wait. That’s the one that’s there that’s about 150 to 200 people.
So when you drive around town I asked this rate routinely at my fundraisers and when I meet with people, I say, when the question about homelessness comes up, I say, “Hey, let me ask you some folks — raise of hands — if you drove around town today and you saw no one behaving problematically on the street corners begging, defecating, urinating, all the other kind of stuff — because I get sent pictures. Pictures that the people doing nasty stuff, bathroom stuff, on the streets. I’ve got proof; it’s not fictitious and it’s fairly well involved. But if I asked you, if you drove around you didn’t see any of them, what would you say? What would you say about the homeless issue?”
And they say, “Well, it would be solved.” And I’ve got to clarify to them, “No, it’s not.” Because that’s just 150 or 200 of the greater whole. That’s not the solution. Homelessness is a very involved process, and there’s people at every level, the people who are about to go homeless. Those people who are, say, a waitress who’s lost her job, and now she’s about to lose her apartment. We have to step in, I believe, and help those people. Maybe it’s just a few hundred bucks a month on rent support, and keep them in their apartment. Maybe it’s a waitress with a young kid, and we’ve got to keep them through — all the way through the spectrum.
But let’s let’s look way over at the people that are living rough on the street, the problematic people, and until we get a better word, let’s call them vagrants. And I know that everyone is saying we’ve got to throw people in jail. But the notion that — and I get this from experts — the notion that incarcerating someone is not is never part of the solution, that’s just wrong. Because at some point we’ve got to help these people; we got to do an intervention. Their churches aren’t doing it their families aren’t doing it, their communities aren’t doing it at some point, these people are costing us money and hurting businesses. So we have as a city, Anchorage has to step in and do an intervention. If they were your kids, you would intervene.
Well, someone’s got to demonstrate a little concern for these people on the street, because, by the way, they’re the ones that are dying getting hit by cars, those are the ones that are freezing to death or getting frostbite. So how do you do the intervention? How do we get there? How do we get them to the point where they have to decide if they’re going to get better, heal themselves in a jail cell or in a demonstrably effective program.
And I’m asking, how do we get to that point? Well, you have to take them into custody, and I don’t want to start, necessarily, a criminal record, but we’ve got to get them in. And so you do. There’s a program in Wasilla or Palmer that works very well, I was just told last night. What you do is you voluntarily decide to subject yourself to a program for 12 months. And that, that means a level of incarceration, where you can’t go back out on the street, live along Chester Creek and have access to the drugs and the alcohol and all the problematic stuff that where you were in the first place.
So tell me, how do we intervene and help these people? Because I’m all done. I’m not going to be a mayor that’s going to sit here and have people freeze to death on the street get frostbite on the street get hit by cars. That’s a failed methodology. It has terrible results, and I’m not going to be part of it. I don’t need this job bad enough to be part of something that’s that important, because going back to the first question, reinvestment in downtown is tied directly to our vagrancy issue. Let’s fix it.
Let’s just fix the problem, and how we’ve been doing it the past several years isn’t working. Let’s not deny the fact that it’s just not working. So let’s get these people off the street — and I’ll ask you, maybe you guys have been here a long time. How do we do this intervention? Okay, I have a plan; it’s unfortunately for a very, very small part of this overall homeless problem; we’ll call them the vagrants. Law enforcement has to engage; they have to. Unless you’ve got another plan, if there’s volunteer groups or community patrol, something like that, I’m open to listen to anything. But people dying on the streets, that’s going to end. It’s just going to end.
Q: The city feels divided, and the rhetoric at Assembly meetings is out of hand. How do we lower the temperature?
Dave Bronson: Well I’ll tell you what, first and foremost, we do have to work together, but but we’ve got to end the policies that triggered the trigger the emotion. So we open up the city. Guess what, now these people, these restaurant owners that are down there complaining, they’re back to their shops, getting things going and trying to find their employees and and getting back to full business. And there’s a pent up desire for people to go out, unencumbered, and go to restaurants again. That’s that’s in our nature, it’s in our DNA. We want to be together, we want to have drink coffee, tea or beer in a public place and, and with our friends people thrive on that and it’s not just our culture, I spent a lot of time in a lot of cities throughout this world, that’s a universal, and we need to get, we need to get back to that.
So, the energy is going to dissipate as soon as we a lot of this negative energy is going to dissipate as soon as we open up these small businesses and and just get back to work, even as we encourage that, again, at the caveat is real clear. The those people that are at risk had the multiple comorbidities, please stay home and, and try to get your shots that, that’s, that’s important, and remember I’m not unsympathetic to this, I am which your your newspapers called a long term. And it’s a good term, and that’s what my doctor called me, because I got sick in November. I had COVID. My whole family did, in November and then January; it wasn’t — it was fairly mild, and in January, it came back, and I’ve been sick for two months, until the last few weeks, when I went to the doctor and finally had a lot of this stuff dealt with.
So I’m very sympathetic but just because I’m sick, Dave Bronson is sick, why does that mean that Andy Kriner’s restaurant has to be shut down? Where do you make that connection, logically? And I don’t make the connection. I’ll take care of me. Andy Kriner, whoever owns the restaurant, they take care of them, and everyone goes about making their own decisions on what’s best. And I’ll be honest, if this virus was the mass death event that some people were saying it was gonna be, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone to close your business, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone to stay home. They would have done all that on their own, but it became quite evident very early, that this was not going to be a mass death event. And we never adapted the policy, we just kept one size fits all.
Forrest Dunbar: I’ll be the mayor for everyone in Anchorage, not just for the people that voted for me. And during my time on the Assembly, I’ve worked with people with very different views than me, particularly on neighborhood issues. You know, parks, trails, roads. I had a friend of mine tell me once, “There’s nothing partisan about a pothole.” And I think that we can find those kind of places to work together. And that’s the vast majority of people, I think, even people who disagree with me strongly.
It’s interesting — whoever the the non-”Save Anchorage” candidate was, that person was going to be was going to be the poster child (for the left), you know, because I wasn’t any more or less involved than others. They keep trying to say, “He’s a far leftist,” but I think if you ask the leftists, they would find that quite funny and surprising. My record is that I’ve worked a lot with the building community, with the business community. I’ve been the, the representative of the Assembly to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and to the AEDC, and the things I really care about, like revitalizing downtown, are not seen as partisan issues — and shouldn’t be.
And that’s one of the great things about local politics, you know. So sometimes I have this sort of tongue-in cheek-motto of, “Make Assembly meetings boring again.” But of course, there are a lot of really important issues that we can and should work on. And again, I think that for the vast majority of folks, we can get back to those kinds of delivery of core services, and we can hopefully work together. There are folks who are engaged in this spreading of disinformation, that perhaps they’re going to continue to do so. I mean, you want to try and speak with them and convince them otherwise, but ultimately it will take all of us rejecting that kind of ideology. Again, we’d have to have a shared set of objective facts; otherwise it’s very hard to reach a middle ground.
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