The Sitka Assembly is moving forward with a plan to install benches in the courtyard of Harrigan Centennial Hall, after members of the public expressed frustration over delays.
The “Benches and Birds” group presented its plan to the assembly last fall, beginning with the initial installation of a bench to honor civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich in the courtyard of Harrigan Centennial Hall.
But when the assembly met on February 22, some organizers voiced frustration with how long the process was taking. Lee House designed the plaque for the bench:
“It feels like we’re back on track in executing the vision for the importance of placing the bench in a place of honor for Elizabeth Peratrovich, who unequivocally made Alaska and this country a better place,” House said. “With that, I do feel like…this process has remained in limbo for a conspicuous amount of time. And I think we’re due for clear and transparent forward movement.”
City Administrator John Leach apologized for the delay. He said staff reviewed the plan, and had concerns about the placement of the bench. The parking lot is a bus and taxi loading zone for tourists during the summer months, and this summer’s cruise season is predicted to be record-breaking. Part of the city’s short term tourism plan includes changes to the traffic flow in the parking lot.
“And it really boiled down to space and passenger flow through the courtyard area,” Leach said. “As you may or may not know that courtyard was designed with seating around it, to not have seating out into the out into the courtyard, so it’s more of an efficient use of the space.”
Leach said they had proposed some alternate locations along the sidewalk, next to the courtyard. But the location of the bench at the center of the courtyard was important to many– with the intention that it would replace the statue of Alexander Baranov, which was moved in 2020. Lakota Harden said that installing the bench would be a small step toward community healing.
“For us as Native people, this is always our history, one of this manifest destiny, of genocidal tactics. And we’ve survived all that. And we live with that all the time,” Harden said. “Even if we want to ignore it, we can’t. And so when you take an action, like honoring this woman, who you know, did an amazing thing that affected everybody. It helps with that healing.”
Member Rebecca Himschoot said she was concerned about ignoring the suggestions of city staff, and she also hoped that in the future the city could develop a straightforward donation policy.
“In the absence of a really clear policy and process for accepting donations of memorial benches and other infrastructure, it’s taking a long time,” Himschoot said. “I don’t think that the length of time it’s taking is any kind of an indication of disagreement about how much we want to honor the legacy of Elizabeth Peratrovich. And I don’t want us to conflate the two issues. I do think the bench should be in a prominent location. I don’t feel it’s really appropriate for the assembly to get involved in that decision.”
But most assembly members wanted to stay the course, and install the bench in the center of the courtyard, including Kevin Mosher.
“Unless it’s a health and safety issue, my preference would be for it to be in the center. I understand the flow and we are doing a lot for the tourists. But I guess the way I see it is we’re kind of bending over backwards to help the tourists, because it will eventually help the town,” Mosher said. “But it’s a beautiful bench and it is meant to honor someone who’s worthy of honor…I don’t think it’s undoable to have it in the center.”
Ultimately the assembly directed the administrator to draft a “Memorandum of Agreement” for the first bench donation and placement in the center of the Harrigan Centennial Courtyard, which will be reviewed by the Assembly at a future meeting.