The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority is spending time and money in evaluating its options for a small property in Juneau, and city officials are growing increasingly impatient.
The AMHTA owns a 3-acre plot of land just off Egan Drive next to Coast Guard Station Juneau, and AMHTA CEO Mike Abbott told the Empire he believes it’s an incredibly valuable parcel.
“It’s a three-acre parcel and we own a million (acres statewide),” Abbott said, “but on a per-square-foot basis, this may be the most valuable piece of undeveloped trust property.”
The trust authority’s entire purpose is to make money off the land that it owns and use that money to benefit those who need mental health care in Alaska, Abbott said. The trust acquired the property in Juneau — which is known as the subport property — in the mid-1990s.
This year, AMHTA hired a nonprofit research firm called the Urban Land Institute to closely examine the parcel and give recommendations to the trust authority about what they can get for the property and what kind of project could work for the land. The researchers began their work Tuesday, Abbott said, and should wrap up Thursday.
Abbott said AMHTA is paying about $50,000 for the study. Abbott said it’s very unusual for the trust to spend this kind of time and money on evaluating a property.
“We don’t have a lot of parcels like this,” Abbott said. “Mostly it’s undeveloped land with resource potential instead of real estate potential. We want to make sure we want to get it right.”
Some people in Juneau, including City Manager Rorie Watt, are running low on patience.
There have been multiple chances over the years to sell the property, Watt said via phone Thursday. In 2008, the AMHTA nearly completed a deal with the state to put an office building on the land, but the state backed out.
In the past few years, there has been serious interest from locals wanting to build the Juneau Ocean Center — an educational center that intends on doubling as a meeting place for those in the marine science community. Abbott said that possibility isn’t out of the picture.
The CBJ has gone on the record multiple times in requesting that the AMHTA sell the land. The Assembly passed a resolution in June 2017 to publicly declare its desire for the trust authority to sell the land sooner rather than later.
This February, a statement on the CBJ’s website stated that “there is no scenario where the best interests of the AMHTA are not achieved by a simple and quick sale.” This statement also stated that the offer from the Juneau Ocean Center group’s offer was above market value. Watt was adamant that the trust authority could have sold the land and then invested those earnings in the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has grown in the past two years.
“It appears that they’re kind of on a quest for a long-term ground lease at some crazy favorable scenario, but as the time rolls by, they’re losing,” Watt said in an interview Thursday. “It’s driving us crazy.”
At Monday’s City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meeting, Watt said he is “befuddled” by the fact that the trust hasn’t taken an offer in recent years. Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski also expressed her displeasure with the process, and the rest of the Assembly members agreed to have Watt write up a letter to the trust authority reaffirming the Assembly’s desire to see the property sold. Watt said he hopes the letter spurs the trust authority to take action a little faster.
“I believe the issue is not that complicated,” Watt said at the meeting. “Their statute requires them to make decisions in the best interest of the trust and its beneficiaries, which is mostly synonymous with creating revenue for their programs. There’s a strong case that they have been a poor manager of their public mission, and I don’t say that lightly.”
Abbott, who took over as CEO about a year ago, said he knows there are some in the Juneau community are unhappy with the way the trust has operated in the past. He also said he’s striving to be as transparent and communicative as possible.
“I’d say that we’ve probably sent mixed signals to the community in the past,” Abbott said, “but that for the last 12 months, and since the beginning of 2018, I think we’ve been pretty consistent that we’re going through a process that we knew would take several months to complete, that will guide our decision making on the subport going forward.”
Abbott said the researchers should start to share their findings starting Thursday, but it will be a little while before they have a full report for Abbott and the trust authority.
Ideally, Abbott said, they would make a decision soon, but it’s more likely that there will be a little more time until a decision is made.
“I’m interested in turning that into money that can be used on beneficiaries as soon as possible, but that being said, we’re a perpetual trust,” Abbott said. “We’re not just thinking about tomorrow. We’re thinking about a hundred years after tomorrow. I’m not afraid of time, if that is clearly in the interest of the trust in the long term.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.