Local News

Assembly grants $25K to boost downtown

The Sitka Assembly is putting $25,000 toward an effort to revitalize downtown Sitka. At its regular meeting last night, the Assembly heard a presentation from a group of Sitkans who formed last fall to improve the city’s central business district.

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Cosmetic changes top the list of suggestions from the group: Things like putting trash cans in more logical places along Lincoln Street, and making them look better. Painting murals on drab pieces of infrastructure, like the retaining wall below the city hall parking lot. Power washing the sidewalks. Installing bike racks that double as public sculpture. Adding new banners to the streetlights — actually, that one is underway.

“Jill, who’s down at Abby’s, did a great, great service, and really spearheaded a project, and I think — and a lot of people in this group think — that this is a great arts town, and a great arts town needs great public art,” said Doug Osborne, who helps run the Downtown Revitalization group.

Osborne is flipping through a Powerpoint presentation, showing off samples of the banners. They’re colorful, and loaded with Sitka icons — fish, Mt. Edgecumbe, the dome at St. Michael’s Cathedral, among others.

“Look at this artwork, this is from a local artist named Laura Kaltenstein,” he said. “That’s being printed up right now. These are big, gorgeous banners.”

Cosmetic changes are accompanied by some policy ideas. One would make Lincoln Street one-way from St. Michael’s out to Harbor Drive. Another would close the downtown thoroughfare to traffic on four different Wednesdays — an experiment to see how it does as a pedestrian mall.

Assembly members had lots of questions. Mike Reif said he supported the process, and liked the overall idea. But he expressed concern at the proposal on the table — to allocate $25,000 and let the group do its work with support from the city.

“I don’t think we should, as a body, just say ‘Go ahead and do this,'” Reif said. “Some of these items, like possibly closing the street, might be an item that the administrator working with you may want to do. But I really think it would be wise to have that be in public process.”

Thor Christianson, on the other hand, favored a more hands-off approach. He said the city needs to let little changes happen in order to create a bigger effect.

“Nobody’s going to come to Sitka because we have a bike rack shaped like a fish,” he said.

But Christianson also said a bike rack shaped like a fish can be part of a larger effort toward making the city feel vibrant and fun.

“This one of the few really concrete things I’ve seen come out that says ‘Let’s try and make ourselves more of a visitor-friendly town,'” he said. “It approaches that whole ‘cool factor,’ when you walk through the town and say ‘This is a nice, fun town.’”

Interim City Administrator Jay Sweeney said there are a lot of options to improve downtown that don’t require much city effort.

“There are a lot of cases where it seems the municipality is the Great and Powerful Oz, behind the curtain; that we’re capable of achieving anything and we’re always the first resort,” he said.

But this, he says, is different. It’s a public-private partnership. In other words, citizens can click their own heels together and get things done, but it helps to have Oz chiming in with encouragement.

“And I thought this would be a good way for the city to be a creative partner with the private sector, and with the revitalization committee, with some seed money, to be able to look at a creative way to accomplish the work and get as much done as possibly could be done,” Sweeney said.

So, back to Doug Osborne and his group. He agrees that all the ideas on the list might not come to fruition, but that his group just wants to get something done this summer.

“The group’s been meeting for eight months. The honeymoon is certainly over,” Osborne said. “We need something to help keep us going. If we get some city support, like with the banners — Jill is taking the banners and… she’s going to clean them and store them. But we don’t have the $3,000 to buy the banners.”

They do now. Assembly members unanimously approved $25,000 for the group. The banners, which are being printed in Seattle, will likely go up by mid-June.

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