Folks doing their holiday shopping in downtown Sitka can enter a contest to guess the number of lights on the tree in front of St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral; they’ll also be able to gaze at a Christmas village in window of a closed storefront that ordinarily is dark all winter. Little changes like these are the start of what a committed group of Sitkans hope is something bigger: A more visitor-friendly town – for residents.
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Stephanie Brenner owns a clothing store on Lincoln St. in Sitka. She’s been in business for a long time. Brenner wants people to shop locally, but there’s more.

“I think when you work downtown you have a real sense of the people downtown and the community downtown. And I have a personal interest in it, as well as financial. You’re just vested in the community.”

Brenner is one of about fifty Sitkans who attended a downtown revitalization meeting in October, after the Sitka Health Summit chose the issue as one of its three goals for the year. The health summit is a collaboration of health care organizations, social service agencies, businesses, and professionals who meet annually to set attainable goals for improving health and wellness in the community. Recent projects have been designing and painting a mural in response to the high domestic violence rate, and making Sitka the first officially-recognized bicycle-friendly community in the state.

Angela McGraw works at Sitka Community Hospital. She attended the summit, and was immediately drawn to the idea of reimagining downtown Sitka.

“The big thing also is the locals. Making it important for us; making it viable for us.”

Visit the Sitka Downtown Revitalization work group on Facebook.

There have already been two well-attended meetings on downtown revitalization, and some action. A garden nursery owner has donated lighted trees; a store that usually closes up for the winter is allowing a Christmas village to be installed in its window; and downtown merchants are organizing a contest to guess the number of lights decorating the Christmas tree in front of St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral.

McGraw says this is all part of a larger vision.

“We find these things that we can start with small and it doesn’t mean we aren’t looking bigger. It’s just that sometimes we want to know what we can do and feel like we’ve accomplished something.”

The group has a landscape architect on board, and is looking past the holidays toward some urban planning. There have been proposals in the past to make downtown Sitka more accommodating to tourists. Stephanie Brenner says this new idea is about us.

“I think that we’re on the brink of making our downtown what we would like it to be. People have spoken: They’d like it to be more pedestrian friendly. We’d like to encourage more bicycle racks, or areas for people to congregate and to bring their kids downtown.”

Ideas that emerge at the Health Summit have a pretty high success rate, because of the emphasis on attainability, and the limited duration. Some ideas, however, like food security and a fish-to-schools program, have gained momentum all their own. Brenner hopes downtown revitalization is one of them.

“I just feel that there are enough people that are passionate about this, and I don’t see their passion dying out. There are people that are new to this community, people that have been here for years, and I think there are people who really do want to see a change. I really feel that if you don’t try, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Holly Keen contributed to this story.

The downtown revitalization work group will hold its next meeting 6 PM Wed Dec 12th upstairs in the Sitka Lutheran Church.