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OPINION: Downtown Anchorage has a vision problem

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Downtown Anchorage has a problem: It needs leadership and vision.

When I was growing up, the only things you could find downtown were prostitutes, dive bars, lawyers and tourists. It was not all bad: the new Performing Arts Center, world-class restaurants like Marx Brothers, Simon’s and Sacks, but investment in the 1980s was driven by the conventional wisdom that “Nobody goes downtown.” Midtown was the place to be.

That all changed when Humpy’s opened their doors and proved you could drive traffic to our urban core if you build something amazing. Other businesses followed. In the 1990s, downtown thrived. Even the dilapidated 5th Avenue Mall became a destination.

Over the past decade, downtown has lost its mojo. The pandemic didn’t help, but this trend has been going for a while: Restaurants have closed their doors. Shops are vacating at an alarming rate. Homelessness has become a big issue. People don’t feel safe walking the streets, especially at night.

If you look at the investment in downtown over the last decade, it is no wonder: The John Thomas Building, Soup Kitchen, Aviator Hotel, Henry House, Guest House — it feels like the only investment lately has been in subsidized housing and services for the homeless. We have an acute problem with homelessness right now. It requires a distributed approach where every part of town is willing to do its part to help house people. So far, downtown has taken the lion’s share of this load.

There have been other investments: the Changs, dispensaries, Whiskey and Ramen, Palmeria, Peratrovich Park, Downtown Edge, but if we are going to have a thriving downtown, we need leadership to take steps to encourage more of what we want our downtown to be.

The PAC’s new Broadway schedule is amazing. I want places to go after seeing a world-class performance. I want to spend time walking around the shops and eateries that a thriving downtown deserves. I want people doing amazing things in a densely packed urban environment that supports all kinds of people.

We need to encourage investments that bring everybody back to downtown Anchorage. We need to stop giving up on our downtown.

S.J. Klein is vice president of the Fairview Community Council. He has a business, Alaska Sprouts, in Fairview, and is invested in the neighborhood.

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