It was a grim year for Juneau.
The list of the Empire’s top 10 stories of the year includes the death of the capital city’s just-elected mayor, four violent deaths, a heroin crisis, souring economy and the simple sullenness that comes with a record-wet year.
There were occasional bright spots: The opening of the Soboleff Building and new Mendenhall Valley Public Library, the visit of President Obama to Alaska, and progress on the trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline.
Our natural environment continued to amaze us as well, as a surge of herring in Auke Bay’s Statter Harbor gave residents an up-close look at feeding whales and swarming sea lions.
The Empire’s list of the top stories of the year was complied by staff and incorporates the most important state and local issues of 2015 from Juneau’s perspective. The stories weren’t always the most-read — apparently, you like reading about the legal issues of “Alaska Bush People” TV personalities — but they mattered to Juneau.
The following, in order, is our list of the top stories:
• Mayor Greg Fisk dies. The sudden death of Mayor Greg Fisk in late November brought national attention after police were initially unable to rule out foul play. Fisk’s election victory in October was by a two-to-one margin, and his plans for Juneau — grand in scope — never had a chance to become reality. Following his death, tributes came in from across the state, and even internationally. From Nunavut, Fisk was hailed as one of the negotiators who contributed to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, a Canadian deal similar to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
• Four violent deaths. In October, a 30-year-old man was murdered execution-style. In November, two Juneauites were murdered in Douglas. Before the end of November, another man was stabbed to death, also in Douglas. The fourth death is not being considered murder, but the series of violent deaths was unprecedented in Juneau’s living memory and follows the still-unsolved stabbing death in late 2014 of Christopher Kenney.
• Heroin crimes and addictions surge. At least three of Juneau’s violent deaths in 2015 have been linked by police to drugs. There have been overdoses and poisonings caused by tainted drugs. In lectures and presentations to community groups, the Juneau Police Department has laid out the scope of the problem, one that extends nationwide as opioid drug users turn to heroin to get high. As the year progressed, community awareness of the problem resulted in rallies, meetings and a bumper-sticker campaign that now decorates cars throughout Juneau.
• State struggles toward balanced budget. The Alaska Legislature worked late this year, with three special sessions — two devoted to budget issues. Facing a government shutdown, the Legislature reached a deal that averted a crisis at the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Later in the year, the discussion turned toward a long-term solution as Gov. Bill Walker’s administration organized meetings across the state — first to lay out the scope of the problem, then to explain the administration’s chosen plan. That plan, unveiled in December, calls for a wide variety of taxes and the biggest change to the Alaska Permanent Fund since its creation.
• President Obama spends three days in Alaska. In the first days of September, Alaska received its first extended visit from the president since he took office in 2008. Obama didn’t visit Southeast Alaska, but his trip to Anchorage, Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue made him the first president to travel north of the Arctic Circle while in office, and it gave him an opportunity to use Alaska to publicize the issue of climate change.
• Ribbon-cuttings and new construction. The opening of the Walter Soboleff Center in May was followed by the completion of the new Brotherhood Bridge and the new Mendenhall Valley Public Library. “Ground” was broken on a new cruise ship dock, and the State Library, Archives and Museum kept advancing toward completion.
• Transboundary mining issues bring Canadian conflicts. British Columbia mining minister Bill Bennett traveled to Alaska, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott visited Canada in an effort to calm the waters on Canadian mines near the Alaska border. With environmental groups and fishermen concerned about the consequences of a mine leaking into an Alaska river, 2015 brought new attention to a formerly arcane topic. Even Secretary of State John Kerry chimed in on the issue when he spoke with reporters during his visit to Anchorage in September. In the final days of November, the state and British Columbia signed an agreement creating a working group intended to iron out problems.
• Strange and unusual weather. Juneauites had to wait until the last day of the year to figure out whether 2015 would be the wettest year on record in Juneau, but there were plenty of abnormal occurrences throughout the year: May was the driest in recorded history, January and July the wettest on record. Until a February snowstorm, last winter looked to have the least snow ever, thanks to unusually warm conditions. Offshore, a “blob” of warm ocean water brought tropical fish to Alaska waters and algae blooms that deterred salmon fishermen.
• Denali is official — finally. President Obama opened his visit to Alaska with a bit of news the state had been waiting for — the official restoration of the Denali name to Mount McKinley. While Alaskans have long used the mountain’s traditional name, the federal government had kept its official name in honor of an assassinated president from Ohio.
• Progress and frustration for oil and gas. Not long after President Obama left Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell announced it was stopping its Arctic oil exploration. Obama announced that Shell’s offshore lease wouldn’t be renewed, a blow to those who saw Arctic Ocean drilling as the future of Alaska oil. In the Legislature, the buyout of natural gas pipeline partner TransCanada kept the long-held dream of a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline alive even as tumbling oil prices raised questions about how the state would pay for its share of construction.