Given that the Mendenhall Glacier is the state’s top tourist attraction, it fittingly is a key element in three of the 10 biggest news stories in Juneau in 2023 – including a heads-or-tails decision on the top two.
Disaster in the form of record flooding, hope in the form of a large-scale improvement plan, and an intensely mixed bag of feelings about the record number of people visiting the glacier and other local places this year were among the stories that dominated headlines.
There were also fights familiar to years past, including whether to fund a new City Hall and how much funding should be spent on state government functions rather than Permanent Fund dividends. Other significant community concerns arose regarding people experiencing homelessness, ongoing instability at Bartlett Regional Hospital and development in areas considered potentially unstable.
A key consideration in determining this year’s top 10 is how much and how widely the story’s subject affected Juneau residents.
Among the many stories considered — but not making — the top 10 were renewed concerns about the Fred Meyer intersection following a fatal collision in June, a lawsuit that threatened to halt the Southeast Alaska troll fishery during the summer, a 9% increase to most docks and harbors fees, a nearly $2 million deficit facing the Juneau School District detailed in an audit that found faulty practices, the shutdown of Adventure Bound Alaska which left paying tour customers stranded and questions about a grounding incident unresolved, and a first-degree murder case involving the shooting of a man on Cinema Drive in July.
(Full disclosure: In the spirit of “we’re not the story,” also not considered as part of this list is the decision by Sound Publishing to reduce the Juneau Empire to two print editions a week instead of five, and shut down the local printing of the paper in favor of mailing editions from Washington. We are, however, quite aware of the resulting reactions by the community, which certainly match or exceed some stories that did make the list.)
The following, in ascending order, are the Juneau Empire’s top 10 news stories for 2023.
Juneau is Alaska’s most homeless city on a per-capita basis, with 1.5 times the rate of Anchorage and three times that of Fairbanks, according to data available this year from social service agencies. While there are also numerous local-level efforts to help people in need by government and other entities, the struggles they encountered in 2023 were many. Most prominent was the battle over a cold weather emergency shelter, which for the past two years was at Resurrection Lutheran Church. But when the congregation voted to reject hosting it for a third winter, the city scrambled to find an alternate location, at one point proposing putting people on busses with the engines running. Ultimately a new shelter in Thane opened in October, although its distance from downtown and limited facilities drew objections from leaders at the church after the congregation narrowly reversed its decision in a revote. Meanwhile, the Mill Campground used by people experiencing homelessness during warmer months generated plenty of controversy of its own, with nearby residents reporting problems such as trespassing and drug use on their property by occupants. City leaders this fall said resolving concerns at the campsite will be a matter of substantive discussion during the coming months.
It proved to be a year when Juneau residents proved they could fight City Hall and win — again — as they rejected a second effort by local leaders to pass a bond during the Oct. 3 municipal funding most of the cost of a new building. Voters narrowly rejected a $35 million bond during the 2022 election and the hope of leaders that reducing that amount to $27 million this year — and spending $50,000 in taxpayer money on an advocacy campaign — simply fired up the opposition even more. The measure became the central focus of the election and resulted in every candidate race being competitive, after none were last year. Ironically, while the City Hall measure was rejected, the four Juneau Assembly members elected — two incumbents and two newcomers who replaced departing members — all were in favor of the bond measure.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is Telephone Hill is a highly attractive and historic part of downtown Juneau. But the differences between parties that want to redevelop the area in a variety of ways and people who want few or no changes go vastly beyond the 2.5 acres of land involved. The hillside area which got its nickname after a telephone company called it home in the early 1900s was purchased by the state in 1984 with the intention of putting a new Capitol building there. That didn’t happen and for decades people have been renting residences in the area from the state, a situation that changed when the state transferred the land to the City and Borough of Juneau earlier this year. The city, along with a hired developer, are currently proposing four possible redevelopment plans, all of which have gotten fierce criticism from some people living in or otherwise connected to the neighborhood. The city is continuing to collect public input for a final master plan that originally was scheduled for presentation to the Juneau Assembly in December, but is now slated for next year.
A few weeks after a landslide hit three homes and killed at least five people (with a sixth presumed dead) in Wrangell, the Juneau Assembly concluded a years-long debate about new avalanche and landslide zone maps by passing an ordinance that eliminates regulation in landslide areas. Instead, such zones will be mapped, and the information provided to property owners and the public — but with a strongly worded disclaimer stating, among other things, the maps “do not provide an indication of risk as would be necessary to determine whether landslide hazards actually pose a threat to specific properties.” The ordinance was passed after numerous property owners protested imposing new maps and restrictions, citing the need for additional downtown development and potential loss of value to their properties. Assembly members supporting the ordinance said numerous areas in the city are exposed to various forms of natural risk and it is up to property owners and purchases to accept some responsibility in determining what and where to build.
After years of proposals and debate about Juneau’s most popular tourist spot, the U.S. Forest Service published a final Record of Decision this month for a multiyear improvement plan at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. It will include a new welcome center and outdoor amphitheater, more parking, expanded trail access, and up to five new public-use cabins. It also states motorized boats will not be allowed on Mendenhall Lake and rejects a proposed visitor center near the current face of the glacier, which has receded considerably since the existing center was built. Among the problems officials hope to remedy is excessive crowding and impacts to the natural area, with traffic so heavy this summer some commercial operators were forced to cancel tours because capacity limits had been reached. The area is still facing other controversies, including a lawsuit by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to seize control of Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River from the federal government, which among other things would allow motorized vessels to be used on the waters.
It can’t be definitively proven that raising the minimum dump charge for residential users to $141.18 instead of $49.50 as of Feb. 1 — along with cutting operating hours in half — was responsible for enormous collections of trash seen elsewhere in town and out the road during subsequent months. But both the fees and illegal dumping became immensely contentious issues during the year. Waste Management, the private company that owns Juneau’s only landfill, said the rate increase is needed to provide site improvements and the reduced hours were to encourage participation in curbside pickups. Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reported the landfill is only expected to last for 17 to 26 more years, and officials said there currently isn’t a long-term solution in place. Subsequently during the year photos were frequently posted on local social media pages of trash ranging from common household waste to appliances being dumped in town and along the side of roads far outside of town. Numerous residents organized and participated in cleanups of some such areas.
The thing most Alaskans will probably remember about this year’s legislative session is they got a $1,312 Permanent Fund dividend, rather than last year’s $3,284 payout. But a sizeable percentage of residents looking beyond their own bank accounts will also remember this year’s Capitol capers for the educational policy debates. In particular were attempts to increase the per-student funding formula that had remained essentially unchanged since 2017, as well as a so-called “parents rights” bill (also dubbed a “don’t say gay” bill by some opponents) that imposed strict limits on matters related to sexual orientation and gender. The Legislature approved a $680 one-time per-student increase after a stalemate resulted in a one-day special session, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half of the amount. Dunleavy’s “parental rights” bill, meanwhile, generated testimony from thousands of residents — overwhelmingly in opposition — and the proposal got shelved for the year after an amendment was made declaring parents would need to approve the entire curriculum for their children rather than just sex education.
The hospital has struggled in recent years with high turnover among leadership, financial and hiring struggles tied largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, and questions about care. But the troubles came to a public peak during a July 25 board meeting when one doctor who is a member of the hospital’s board presented and discussed a letter alleging “inhumane treatment” of behavioral health patients that was putting other patients and staff “in harm’s way.” CEO David Keith and Chief Financial Officer Sam Muse resigned within a week of the meeting, although both denied a connection to the issues raised. But other hospital leaders acknowledged during the following weeks employee morale was a serious concern, as was public perception of the hospital. A new interim CEO, Ian Worden, started Oct. 30 following something of an unusual online interview with the board in September, who subsequently said his primary goals during a roughly year-long tenure are to stabilize hospital operations during the search for a permanent long-term CEO.
This was unquestionably the most shocking and disastrous story of 2023, as dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed when more than 13 billion gallons of water were released from the ice basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier on Aug. 5, resulting in what experts called a once-in-500-years flood. The Mendenhall River rose by nearly 15 feet — three feet higher than the previous record — washing away vast portions of people’s yards along with some of their homes. Intensive rebuilding efforts and “armoring” of the riverbank with many tons of rock fill saved some structures thought to be uninhabitable again. But many residents are facing six- and seven-figure repairs and/or losses, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejecting a disaster declaration request from the city and state. Furthermore, experts say more such flooding is likely in future years due to climate change — at least until enough of the glacier melts that Suicide Basin is no longer a threat, but by then other similar basins further back may be. As a further sign of Suicide Basin’s current threat, a release of water from it in July is suspecting as the cause of death of kayaker Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr., last seen near the glacier July 11 before footage from a helmet camera confirming his death was found several days later.
In one sense, the decades-old battle about large-scale cruise ship tourism is barely news — much as turmoil in Washington, D.C., or the Middle East is a seemingly ever-present occurrence. But like those other areas, what happened in Juneau was on such an unprecedented scale and affected so many people — including those not directly affiliated with tourism, such as city bus passengers who found themselves unable to get to and from work due to visitors packing the vehicles — it emerges as the top story of 2023. More than 1.65 million passengers visited between April and October, about 30% more than the most recent “normal” season in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns about impacts due to the high volume of cruise tourists resulted in an agreement between major cruise lines and the city for a five-ship daily limit in 2024, although the number of passengers for that year and 2025 are expected to be comparable to this year. As a result, most Juneau Assembly members expressed a preference in November for exploring options for a long-term strategy that results in fewer passengers and/or impacts for 2026 and beyond.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.