City Manager Rorie Watt talks new City Hall, AEL&P, whale statue

Successful or not, Juneau likes to take on new ideas.

City Manager Rorie Watt spoke to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday about the many different topics surrounding the city and said many big ideas that have either come into fruition or on the verge of happening help keep Juneau thriving.

“Juneau is the kind of town that has the appetite to take on big ideas and try them,” Watt said.

Watt referenced the Dimond Park area in the Mendenhall Valley as an outline for other big ideas.

“A group of people came together in the80s and took an initiative (for Dimond Park),” Watt said. “We actually followed a master plan for 30 years. Where would we be today without those facilities?”

Watt said Dimond Park was a good example of what working together and having a clear idea of what needs to be done can help make a project work.

“I think you can make transformational changes if you strategize, lay out a compelling vision and maintain a coalition of support,” Watt said.

Watt pointed to the idea of a new City Hall as a current big project that could soon play out.

“We currently pay $750,000 a year in rent for municipal offices downtown and the idea is if we turn that into a stream of payments on debt for the construction of a new facility we might be able to be essentially on par,” Watt said.

Watt said the old City Hall building would be sold and because of its location in regards to cruise ship docks, he is confident there will be business owners willing to scoop up the building.

The new City Hall, Watt said, would be on top of the downtown transportation center parking garage.

“When we built the parking garage we oversized the structural elements and we can go on up on that,” Watt said. “The reason for that location is that it has parking, is very accessible to the public, a lot of the development cost have already be incurred and it keeps the offices downtown.”

Watt said there are still needs to be a more diligent cost estimate and preliminary architectural plans that need to be made, but when the new City Hall is complete, it will make going into the building a better experience.

“I think what we are going to find is we can design offices operate more efficiently as well,” Watt said. “Right now we are spread out in some of our offices. We could eliminate that and departments could figure out how to share employees and services if we are in one building.”

Watt also commented on some of the decisions that were made during the recent budget season during Finance Committee meetings. He said his office and the Assembly did not receive a lot of public input, which he said he believes is a sign that those in City Hall are doing their jobs in a way the public sees fit.

“I take that as the public has confidence in what we are doing,” Watt said. “I am proud of our efforts.”

Watt also heard questions about the city possibly buying back Alaska Electric Light & Power. Watt said that a decision of that magnitude is better left as an Assembly matter. He also added that city-controlled services go against the city’s plans.

“Generally at the city, we are trying to figure out the least services the city can provide and let the private sector do as much as it can,” Watt said.I am not saying (buying back AEL&P) is not a good and worthy idea, but largely this is a political question that remains in the hands of the Assembly.”

Watt also touched on the hot topic of the whale statue at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park. He said that The Whale Project committee has been able to get a patent on the whale which could alleviate maintenance costs for the statue. Watt said there is not an exact estimate on those costs.

Laraine Derr, head of fundraising for The Whale Project, said the committee thought about those costs while planning the statue and that getting a patent only made sense.

“We did not want the city to assume the burden (of maintenance costs),” Derr said in a phone interview with the Empire. “Any proceeds from T-shirts, aprons and mugs will have a percentage that will be donated to the city. We figured when you go to Paris you buy a statue of the Eiffel Tower, so when people come to Juneau they will buy a statue of the whale.”

Watt certainly hopes that is the case.

“Hopefully people buy a lot of T-shirts with the whale on it,” Watt said.


• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at gphilson@juneauempire.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.


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