The St. Michael’s dilemma: One of the oldest, continuously-operating religious institutions in the state, the cathedral is also an iconic landmark. “St. Michael’s is Sitka,” said assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Sitka assembly — on first reading — agreed to donate $5,000 to renovation work at St. Michael’s Cathedral.

But it was not a slam-dunk decision by the assembly, some of whom had qualms over donating public funds to a religious institution.

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Assemly member Richard Wein reported that the total expense of the cathedral renovation was $132,000, about half of which was raised. “I’m writing my own check,” he said, “because it’s so easy to give away other peoples’ money.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The existing building is a replica of the one built by the Russians in the 19th Century. The original was destroyed by a fire that swept through downtown Sitka in 1966. The site is a National Historic Landmark.

Assembly member Kevin Knox was among the majority who thought contributing to the renovation was a benefit to Sitka.

“It’s beyond iconic. It’s one of those things that brings people here,” said Knox.

The ordinance was co-sponsored by member Steven Eisenbeisz, who owns a downtown retail store. He anticipated that there might be spirited conversation over the donation, because the cathedral is a functioning church, and a part of a much larger national religious organization (the Orthodox Church in America) that should probably fund it’s own repairs.

“On the other hand, using bed tax which is funded by our visitors, to help with a remodel with what is probably the most famous building in Sitka — it’s featured in tons of advertising for Sitka. The church is Sitka,” said Eisenbeisz.

The money for the donation would come from the 6-percent bed tax levied on hotels and B&B’s. The city has accumulated a “Visitor Enhancement Fund” of over $304,000 to improve the visitor experience. Most on the assembly thought St. Michael’s qualified.

Member Aaron Bean did not. He had this exchange with the ordinance’s other co-sponsor, Bob Potrzuski.

Bean – I disagree. I think that it’s a church, and it’s an active church. It’s not a historical one. If we were talking about the church that doesn’t have services over here — next to Crescent and the Bayview Trading Company (the chapel inside the Russian Bishop’s House) — I would agree. But it’s active, and it’s no question that it’s a religious matter.
Potrzuski – Let me clarify, Aaron. It’s certainly an active church. There is religion going on there. But my vote is not geared toward that religion, it’s geared toward what it brings to the economy of Sitka.

The donation passed on first reading with only Bean opposed. Member Richard Wein said that he would also write a personal check, because as assembly members he believed they should be cautious about donations. “Giving away other people’s money is so easy,” he said.