Returning to the Fun of Alaska Politics: How Important is a Library?

In the state primary election last August, I voted for the first time. Being an undeclared voter, I got to choose which party ballot to vote, and, given my state's partisan tilt, I chose to vote among the Republican candidates - who, quite ironically, were the more diverse bunch (as there were more of them running for the various offices). I also voted on two questions for the City of Ketchikan, both concerning the site of a new library being planned.

Statewide, there was really only one interesting result: our incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski lost her primary to a Tea Party and Sarah Palin-supported candidate with no political experience and a lot of radical talk. Otherwise, our current governor and representative are set up to run for reelection against a couple Democrats. Right away, it was actually the local library question that most impassioned me.

When I first heard my hometown was looking to build a new library, the idea seemed to me unnecessary. I grew up with the library always being in one place, and hadn't ever been made aware of any problems with it, so I suppose it was natural to be skeptical of change. Once I got clued in on the space issues that both the library and city museum (which share the same building) have dealt with for decades, however, I was easily swayed. It was clear to most everyone that building a new library building made a lot of sense - and a bunch of grant money could be garnered to fund it, too. Afterward, the museum would be able to take over the entirety of the old building, like it had been supposed it would decades before.

The big issue was where the new building would be. As I'm sure is the case in many places, there is often a geographic component to politics in my town. Years ago this appeared very strongly in the form of those who live outside the city limits (in the greater Borough area) opposing nearly unanimously any sort of consolidation of the borough and city governments. This time around, however, the library site was a city issue, so the two-fifths or so of our island's population that lives outside the city limits (including my girlfriend and many other school friends) didn't get to vote on the issue at all. If I was feeling vindictive, I'd say they deserved the lack of suffrage.

Thus, the issue boiled down to intra-city conflict. The battle lines were drawn between those who wanted to keep the library in the "downtown" area and pretty much everybody else. Not that many people live downtown these days - or at least it's a lot fewer than did in the past. You see, for the last two decades, tourism has systematically invaded and transformed nearly all the businesses and bits of infrastructure unlucky enough to have existed anywhere near the cruise ship docks. As a result, fewer and fewer locally-owned, open-year-round businesses - as well as other institutions, from radio stations to government offices - have their locations downtown, and other parts of the city have grown considerably.

Despite this, a cohort of downtown business owners and others decided to start a ballot proposition that would force the city to choose a new library site within the downtown area. Had they not done this, in fact, the issue wouldn't have been put to vote at all, as the City Council was already intending to choose a site called Copper Ridge, situated on the Third Avenue Bypass - a road constructed a few years ago that cuts up along the mountains, easing traffic along the main thoroughfare near the water that connects the large residential and industrial area of the West End (where I live) to downtown.

I have always seen Ketchikan as a changing place. Early in my life, the town was struck by decline when the local pulp mill closed, and since then it has changed and grown in different ways largely because of tourism. I've always thought that my town should grow. I love it so much and think it's such a special place that I feel my community deserves to be successful. On the other hand, I don't want Ketchikan to advance commercially or grow demographically at any cost. When this is applied geographically, I tend to think of things this way: I don't want Ketchikan to end up like Juneau.

Juneau is the largest city in southeast Alaska, and it's about twice as large as the Ketchikan area. Juneau, however, is a fractured place. From my experience of being there many times for school activities and staying in different people's houses while there, I believe that Juneau is really three different places: Downtown, the Mendenhall Valley, and Douglas. Douglas, of course, has always been a separate town, being that it's on its eponymous island across the water from the city, which is on the mainland. Nonetheless, Juneau has had a "bridge to nowhere" connecting the two places since 1935. The Mendenhall Valley, a very large residential area, in turn, is connected to downtown Juneau by such a long and desolate highway (across smelly and boring mudflats) that Douglas is practically more a part of the city than the Valley. Though all these places have been incorporated into a unified city/borough government, I see this sort of community division (where your house's location determines so much that you're almost living in an entirely different town with your neighbors) as something Ketchikan should avoid.

It's true, Ketchikan does have people who live far away from the town center, since just like Juneau, development has to stretch out in this region of the world rather than build out in nice concentric rings. I think that those who live north and south of town, however, will never build up their own separate amenities as much as Douglas and the Valley did. At least, I don't think they will as long as Ketchikan continues to be a strong city center - but with downtown suffering a slow and painful death through the devouring influence of the cruise industry, that might actually be in doubt.

That is basically the reason I voted for the Copper Ridge site and against the "downtown only" movement, and the reason I am so glad it won out (and by a wide margin) in the vote. Copper Ridge is really a central location, and I see that it might become another place to keep Ketchikan connected even as downtown declines. It also has a beautiful view, despite having been degraded as being in rock quarry; looking out on the forest in Bear Valley is wonderful, and I've always been a tree person, not a fish person. During salmon runs, the library on the creek is imbued with a smell I've never particularly liked. I can't wait until Ketchikan's library moves to its new site, and I hope to continue to see my hometown community develop in healthy ways.

Now I have an absentee ballot on its way to me, and I'll have to get back to the blog later on the huge senate race in Alaska.