Voters in the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election will decide whether to approve $35 million in bond debt to fund the majority of the construction cost for a new City Hall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Voters in the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election will decide whether to approve $35 million in bond debt to fund the majority of the construction cost for a new City Hall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The $35M question: Advocates and critics weigh in on City Hall proposition

Ballots put bond debt question to voters.

Though the upcoming municipal election might lack drama in uncontested school board and Assembly races, the proposition asking voters whether to approve $35 million in bond debt to fund the majority of the construction cost for a new City Hall has been a source of contention and conversation among Juneau residents.

The proposed building would move the location of the City and Borough of Juneau City Hall from Seward Street over to Whittier Street, across the street from the state museum. City Hall is currently, is one of the most expensive municipal buildings for the city to maintain costing $800,000 annually for the city to rent out, according to city officials

Building a new City Hall is estimated to cost around $41.3 million, which would require the $35 million bonds along with $6.3 million to be pulled from general funds, an amount that the Assembly has already allocated.

Assembly member Wade Bryson has been the most vocal assembly member on the topic and has carried the torch in speaking with community members on why he will be voting yes for the initiative.

[Bryson dishes on City Hall plans at chamber luncheon]

Bryson said building a new City Hall would save the city money in the long run and would provide opportunities for more housing downtown by shrinking the five locations that the city uses for CBJ offices into one central location. He said the current City Hall located across Marine Park is in poor condition and said the possibility of renovation will only cause problems later.

“We took the paths the community asked for — repurpose a building and went and explored those ideas — and it just didn’t provide the answer, it didn’t give us the product we needed for City Hall,” he said.

He added: “The things that make a good City Hall we wouldn’t have been able to do by repurposing a building. We’d be stuck with basically the same problem that future generations would have to do what we’re doing right now.”

Paulette Simpson, a resident of Douglas Island and a vocal critic of the ballot proposition, said she will be voting no for multiple reasons including the plan to build new instead of repurposing already existing infrastructure.

She said she believes the city is ignoring the dwindling demographic future of Juneau and its school district and said: “there will be fewer people to pay the cost to maintain this new infrastructure.”

She said she believes the city did not do a thorough, “nonemotional” and comprehensive review and inventory of the public spaces available and should have been considering “looking long term” at the school district and considering the possibility of consolidating the high schools into one.

She said she thinks it could open the door for repurposing one into City Hall — though she said she didn’t know if it is the best option, rather that it is just a “possibility” that the city did not account — and said with the current decrease in district enrollment she thinks a closure of one of the high schools is “inevitable” within the next five to 10 years.

Bryson said the committee in charge of the project considered 52 sites when originally looking at places to renovate or build at, which did include the possibility of repurposing one of the high schools, according. The decision was cut, Bryson said, because it would have more added tasks, a shorter life span and substantial public opposition than building a new City Hall would have.

Bryson said the idea that Juneau’s demographics are dwindling to a large enough degree that consolidation would need to happen is something he believes is heavily skewed because of the pandemic. He said the school district needs to “let the dust settle” from the pandemic before making larger decisions like consolidation.

“I truly believe that our best days are ahead. We could relent and say ‘nope, Juneau’s going to dwindle forever’ which is kind of the message that the naysayers are saying, and I say no,” he said.

Win Gruening, another critic of the proposition said in an opinion piece in the Empire that he will be voting no, arguing it to be “the worst possible time” to build a new City Hall due to high inflation and the already existing real estate vacancies in Juneau.

“This project should be paused and sent back to the drawing board,” Gruening wrote. “The cost will likely be higher due to runway construction costs spiraling up in a period of rapid inflation, lack of skilled construction workers, and supply-chain breakdowns.”

He wrote the city should wait until inflation and the cost of construction goes down and while doing so also examine repurposing existing government buildings or other local vacant commercial office spaces before coming to a decision.

“Look around town right now, there’s tons of commercial space available right now. What businesses will move into these spaces? There’s square footage all over town,” Simpson said similarly.

However, Bryson said he disagrees.

He said he believes moving the city’s operations into one consolidated place would be beneficial for residents and businesses now and in the future, as it would free up space to be utilized for new housing downtown and businesses to move into and the new building would have a longer lifespan than repurposed buildings.

“The not do anything option will cost more over the next 30 years,” Bryson said in a previous Assembly meeting. “Not doing something, we’re looking at $12 to 18 million for this building in the next four years and massive renovations — we’d pay more money than if we build City Hall now and build it correctly.”

He said building a new City Hall would free up the $800,000 annual cost the city spends on renting out the space and the addition of the $35 million in bonds would come at a time when the city is also about to finish paying off already existing bonds and said the burden of the new bonds would be lesser than the already existing ones.

“The City Hall bond payment is actually cheaper than the bonds we’re about to pay off. We’re about to free up a payment essentially and were going to replace it with a smaller payment,” he said.

Bryson said though he understands many of the critiques about the proposition, he said it’s the best option for now and in the long run.

“This is practical and benefits multiple generations of Juneauites, I cannot think of a project that has more merit than that,” he said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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