Since the start of the year, at least four stores have closed in downtown Sitka. Fewer visitors are coming aboard cruise ships, sales tax revenues are declining, and business owners have long expressed concerns about the financial health of Lincoln Street.
Now, a group of Sitka residents hopes to do something about it. And they want your help.
The Cellar should be closed right now, but it’s packed. Customers are picking over clothing and board games, and it’s hard to move freely through the shop’s narrow passages. Everyone’s come downtown for “Moonlight Madness,” a Halloween-themed event organized by the Chamber of Commerce.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” says Vickie Denkinger, owner of The Cellar. “We look forward to it, because we’re able to get a lot of inventory out – clearance sale items, and get ready for our holiday.”
Tonight, Denkinger is dressed as a 1920s flapper, like the rest of her staff. Warm light spills out of the store and onto the sidewalk as people come and go. But across the street, most of the block is dark and empty.
“We need new businesses,” she says. “We need people that are willing to come in and want to start a new business, because it affects us when they’re not here. Less people come downtown. They’d rather go to Juneau or online.”
Three of the block’s five storefronts have signs in the window reading “For Rent.” Baranov’s Russian and American Store called it quits this year, as did Fairweather Gallery and Gifts, which moved to Juneau to capitalize on a higher number of cruise passengers. And it doesn’t look as though Del Sol, a summer-only T-shirt store, is coming back next season, either. Further down the street, the Alaska Basket Co., is having a closeout sale. A sign on the door says the last day of business is Oct. 31.
None of the Moonlight Madness shoppers head down this stretch of sidewalk across the street from The Cellar. But if you go back in time just a few hours, you’ll find Doug Osborne and Angela McGraw, walking along the street, on a mission.
Osborne and McGraw are part of the Sitka Health Summit – an annual gathering put on by Sitka’s two hospitals, where locals establish health and wellness goals for the community. The top three are chosen by popular vote, and this year’s big winner was revitalizing downtown.
“In a healthy community, the healthy choice is the easy choice,” Osborne says. “So you make a downtown area that’s good for kids, that’s good for people that are walking, that’s good for people that might have disabilities, that’s good for people that bike, that’s good for a lot of different people with a lot of different ways of getting around.”
Osborne and McGraw drop in on a few stores, including Brenner’s Fine Clothing and Gifts. It’s open year-round and has been in business in Sitka since 1967. Stephanie Brenner runs the business, and she says the loss of so many downtown neighbors has an impact on those who remain.
“One store is not an island,” Brenner says. “We are not a reason for people to come downtown. When you have less businesses downtown, it’s less reasons for people to come downtown.”
Just off the top of her head, Brenner lists a few ideas to revitalize downtown: New paint on prominent downtown buildings. Make seasonal stores keep their lights on in the off season, so downtown doesn’t look dead. Put more public bathrooms on her end of Lincoln Street.
She thinks about this a lot.
“When you live here, and I feel like I live downtown, or I work at least downtown, you’re around it all the time,” she says.
Osborne, McGraw, and the health summit group hope to develop a plan by channeling that energy – Brenner’s or anyone else’s. Osborne says there might be differing approaches, but he says downtown areas still matter to communities. He cites shopping centers in the lower-48 that have been built to mimic the appearance of a small town’s Main Street.
“They look nice, and they look groomed, and they look like a small town but they’re missing a soul,” Osborne said. “Because they’re not real. They’re companies catering to a suburban population and trying to maximize a profit, and they’re not having people live there.”
“We’re lucky,” McGraw adds. “We’re already starting with a soul.”
“We’re starting with a real town,” he says.
The Sitka Health Summit’s Downtown Revitalization project kicks off with an hour-long meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. inside Harrigan Centennial Hall. Can’t make it? You can still give your input. Call Angela McGraw at 747-1737 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org