Construction on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s arts campus, seen here on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in downtown Juneau ran into complications when contaminated soil was discovered at the site. The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved $1.5 million in funding for the campus. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Construction on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s arts campus, seen here on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in downtown Juneau ran into complications when contaminated soil was discovered at the site. The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved $1.5 million in funding for the campus. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

City funds give arts campus project a boost

Contaminated soil created unexpected costs for ongoing work

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved a $1.5 million dollar grant Monday toward the construction of the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus in downtown Juneau.

The appropriation was approved unanimously by the Assembly after a short public comment period in which Chairman of Sealaska Corporation’s Board of Directors Joe Nelson and former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho among others testified in support of the project.

“I think the campus that’s been proposed is one opportunity to really invigorate our community,” Botelho said in his testimony. “It might be all too easy to forget that Juneau has a future beyond this disease.”

No one spoke against the project during the meeting.

SHI had previously asked the city for additional funding, but in May the Juneau-based nonprofit asked the Assembly to delay that consideration amid the financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the discovery of contaminated soil at the construction site meant the project needed an immediate infusion of cash to cover the additional costs of removing hazardous waste, SHI’s Chief Operation Officer Lee Kadinger told the Assembly Finance Committee last month.

The contamination will need to be removed before construction of the campus’s foundation can be completed, Kadinger said in a statement Tuesday. Work will continue as long as the weather allows it to Kadinger said, and SHI hopes to have the majority of construction finished at the site by September 2021.

In an email Tuesday, SHI media specialist Kathy Dye said the contamination appears to be some kind of diesel heating oil. The several tons of contaminated soil that need to be removed cannot be stored in Juneau, Kadinger previously told the Empire, and special containers will need to be ordered from the lower 48 in order to remove the waste.

[Sealaska Heritage asks for city support for project]

The funding goal for the campus was $13 million, Kadinger said, and with the additional $1.5 from the city SHI has raised $12.5 million. The city’s additional funding will help unlock $400,000 from the Pacific Northwest-focused M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Kadinger said in the statement, funding which was designated to be “last money in.”

Once finished, the project’s promoters say the arts campus will be a boost to the local economy, increasing the desirability of Juneau as a travel destination and establishing the city as a hub of Northwest Coast art. The plaza will feature an open area but also additional buildings which can host a variety of events such as arts shows, classes or other gatherings, according to SHI’s plans for the site.

“The city’s investment in the Walter Soboleff Building lead to an explosion of growth, and we anticipate that the arts campus will create an economic boon to the city as well, during and after construction,” SHI director Rosita Worl said Tuesday in a statement. “We know Juneau is destined to be a world-class arts destination, and we are humbled and grateful to the community for taking this journey with us and believing in the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus.”

Assembly members approved the funding with no discussion Monday, as SHI made the request at a Sept. 30, Finance Committee meeting. At that meeting, several Assembly members expressed hesitation at spending city funds during a pandemic but also said they felt the arts plaza was a worthy investment that would pay off for Juneau.

“This is how we make investments in our community that will keep our economy moving forward and help take us out of the recession,” Assembly member Wade Bryson said at the meeting.

Former assembly member Rob Edwardson was also a vocal proponent of the project during that meeting. Edwardson did not seek reelection, and his District 2 seat successor Christine Woll was sworn in last month. It was Woll who made a motion to award the funding. The motion drew no objection, and Mayor Beth Weldon congratulated SHI.

In the statement, Kadinger said SHI is also fundraising for a number of other projects including a 360-degree totem pole depicting Alaska Native values and five “monumental” bronze masks representing Alaska’s major cultural groups.

Giving public testimony at the Monday meeting, Worl asked for local support in turning the downtown area into a world-class arts destination.

“We humbly ask the people of Juneau to take this journey again with us,” she said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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