After a couple years of COVID-19 isolation, 2022 was a year of connections.
A distant war was connected to record Permanent Fund dividends in the pockets of Juneau residents. Global climate change was connected to the wiping out the local precipitation record, fisheries and downtown homes. And the housing crisis, inflation, workforce shortages, elections, cruise tourism and first-ever Ironman all got tangled up in the same web.
One certainty is there was no standalone headline that clearly dominated the Juneau Empire’s top 10 stories of 2022, as determined by a weighted ranked choice vote of the editorial staff. Two ranked the killing of Faith Rogers as their top story, for instance, while others left it unranked. Statewide elections were the top pick on three ballots, while another omitted them entirely.
The similar sentiment despite the divergence was ranking the stories each staffer felt was of most significance to Juneau residents. A voter ranking the killing first said it disturbed many residents’ sense of safety, and thus routine activities such as trail hikes for them and their children. Another ranking the statewide elections first observed the present and future years ahead for locals would drastically different if, among other things, a constitutional convention hadn’t been soundly rejected and Kelly Tshibaka had replaced Lisa Murkowski’s enormous earmarks influence in Congress.
Another certainty: Plenty of readers will no doubt disagree with the rankings. So an online ranked choice ballot for residents to select their stories from the same 16 finalists (and allowing for write-ins) is available until noon Friday (Jan. 6), and the results of that tally will be published Saturday. To fill out ballots, drag and drop choices in order of preference. Write-ins can be submitted via the “new entry” box, along with explanatory comments if desired. Selected comments with verifiable names on the Juneau Empire’s Facebook and Twitter pages about why stories do/don’t deserve top rankings will also be published.
So, without further suspense, here is the countdown for the official top 10:
10. Wettest year ever and related climate change impacts
Rain isn’t exactly headline news in Juneau normally, but when the annual precipitation record is broken in early December it’s clear as day (figuratively speaking) things are pretty abnormal.
The year got off to a soggy start with twice as much precipitation as usual in January and February, and the new historic high that replaced the 31-year-old previous record is expected to keep distancing itself rapidly all the way up to 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31. Regardless of whether you accept the experts citing climate change as the cause, what can’t be denied are the widespread local impacts including wrecking many salmon/crab sites, triggering a landslide that destroyed three homes on Gastineau Avenue and leaving the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant in deep doo-doo. Far worse and wetter is yet to come, according to a Juneau-specific climate change report published in July.
This election resulted to no change in municipal elected officials since none of the Juneau Assembly and school board incumbents faced challengers, perhaps suggesting either great satisfaction or apathy.
But locals did demolish pols’ plans for what cynical constituents called a new “Taj Mahal” city hall by rejecting a $35 million bond to pay most of the estimated $41 million price tag. The public also slammed the door shut on public disclosure by repealing an ordinance requiring property sale prices to be disclosed, following an aggressive campaign by real estate interests once city officials actually began enforcing the rule passed by the Assembly in 2020. Wondering how much U-Haul paid (after the election) for the Walmart/Kmart building? Too bad.
Voters did approve $6.6 million in bonds for city parks improvements at city parks, and yet again extended a temporary 1% sales tax they’ve been paying for the past 30 years.
8. Celebration returns in-person after four-year absence
The return of Southeast Alaska’s largest gathering of Alaska Natives in June was also the biggest single show of returning to a “post-Covid” society (except not so much as the New Year approaches), even if the pandemic meant a turnout of 1,200 dancers compared to the 2,000 performing during the last in-person event in 2018.
Thousands of additional Southeast Alaska Natives joined with Juneau residents and a resurgence of summer tourists for four days of “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival.” That slogan turned out to be “fake news” – joyfully so for opening ceremony moderator Rosita Kaaháni Worl who announced that days earlier a study of artifacts revealed the region’s tribal ancestry actually dates back at least 17,000 years.
But the event was primarily a big looking-forward gathering as the opening day also was the debut of the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus, where Alaska’s first 360-degree totem pole also was celebrated. And while many participants said their fondest memories of their four days was simply being among others again after the long pandemic-induced interruption, for people everywhere wanting a full-scale experience virtually Sealaska Heritage debuted its hour-long documentary “Celebration” commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the event.
7. Big federal funds bring big projects and bailouts
Alaskans are fiercely individualistic and don’t need no government handouts. Except, of course, when denied “full PFDs” and when they secure those vital millions in public funds for vital public projects in our neighborhoods (even the “bridge to nowhere” got revived this year as a wistful “what could have been” fix for some of Southeast Alaska’s housing miseries).
Blazing a “pork” path in the decades-long footsteps of “Uncle Ted” in 2022 was Sen. Lisa Murkowski who frequently issued releases about “big wins” tied to nearly $3 billion in funding for the state coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In Juneau that meant big bucks for everything from ferry upgrades/infrastructure to low-income household heating systems to totem poles. She ended the year touting yet more items in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package such as a local composting facility (although the purchase and local home-porting of an icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard got sunk by some last-minute politicking).
More broadly, both the big spending bills and lingering funds from pandemic-related assistance allowed state lawmakers (virtually all of whom were also running for reelection) to bestow budget blessings generously on constituents. One of many such items was hundreds of millions of dollars to cover several years of back payments for school bond debt reimbursement, which ensured Juneau’s municipal government had enough funds to balance its budget for the coming year.
Faith Rogers, 55, was walking her three dogs along Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as Brotherhood Bridge Trail, on Sept. 21, just days before planning to travel out of state to take her licensed clinical social worker exam. She never returned home.
Her body was found near the trail, with the leashes of the dogs tied to a bench nearby, after an apparent fatal stabbing of her neck. After a two-month investigation, Anthony Michael Migliaccio, 34, was arrested Nov. 24 (which happened to be Thanksgiving Day). Charging documents described his struggles with mental illness and past run-ins with the law. Those included felony convictions in Florida, and allegations and charges of threatening and violent behavior in Wasilla and Juneau, including incidents where people were threatened with being stabbed in the neck.
Migliaccio told Juneau police he was living in the woods near the trail and was frustrated because his backpack was stolen the day Rogers died, although while he acknowledged seeing her that day denied killing her, according to charging documents. Witnesses interviewed by police described hostile and threatening encounters with a man believed to be Migliaccio along the trail, while another described him as behaving frantically.
He pleaded not guilty after being indicted on two counts of second-degree murder, plus a charge of manslaughter, and faces a sentence of up to 99 years on the murder charges if convicted.
5. Full cruise ship season resumes
OK, not quite full, as the 74% average capacity for ships fell short of the near-capacity pre-pandemic ridership. But the season began with ships at 40-50% capacity and steadily increased, with industry officials predicting full ships again in 2023. This year’s totals were still plenty sufficient for city politicians and businesses to generally consider revenue a return to “business as usual,” albeit with a few rough waters (most notably labor and housing shortages that – spoiler alert – were huge struggles for most workplaces during the year). There was also a literal hitting-an-iceberg incident when the Norwegian Sun was damaged when it struck ice near Hubbard Glacier in June. One major setback for cruisers in Southeast Alaska was the closure of the dock in Skagway for the remainder of the summer in August due to rock slide damage.
Officials say next season is projected to bring 1.4 million cruise ship tourists to Juneau, but the number could be as high as 1.6 million if the ships are at full capacity.
If your record-high PFD is the headline item that mattered most to you in 2022, then that war halfway around the world between a couple of former Soviet republics isn’t so far from home after all.
Oil prices of about $88 a barrel at the start of the year quickly spiked well above $100 following Russia’s invasion in February, with prices peaking above $120 in June. That allowed state lawmakers running for reelection – most prominently Gov. Mike Dunleavy – to play Santa Claus by bestowing huge PFDs and relatively big budget spending upon constituents. Alas, the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was largely drafted when revenue officials were predicting an average price of $101 a barrel for the coming year, and prices dropped below that kept dropping not long after the spending plan was signed. The most recent predicted average for the year is $88.45, barely above what the state needs to break even.
The war and oil spikes had other local impacts, including the surge of gas prices to well above $5 a gallon before dropping recently. Juneau also adopted two refugee families fleeing their war-torn home towns in Ukraine, both of whom expect to stay at least a couple of years and possibly beyond.
3. Ironman doesn’t go the distance
Auke Lake was so cold swimmers only completed half the course after a delayed start. Pouring rain and rough terrain meant even the fastest pros took much longer than usual to complete the triathlon. And according to the scuttlebutt of some cynics, greedy Airbnb hosts are why subsequent races the next two years were canceled. However, organizers said the cancellation was due to inflation and not a reflection of community actions.
The inaugural Ironman Alaska seemed golden in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 7 race, with local accommodations fully booked months ahead of time and businesses feeling the thrill of victory in the form of about $7-8 million injected into the local economy. The 850 athletes who signed up wasn’t quite what organizers hoped for, but visiting competitors and race officials offered sunny sentiments from the opening ceremony through the late-night closing revelry at the finish line. In a meeting with city leaders a month later, Ironman officials the race might have a future in Juneau beyond the length of the initial contract.
So there was a shocking agony of defeat in early December when the The Ironman Group canceled Ironman Alaska in Juneau for 2023 and 2024, citing impacts from global inflation and economic pressure.
2. Housing and workforce crises keep property owners, employers and workers exposed
These very arguably could be numbers two and three in the rankings (or, one balloter suggested, one and two), knocking everything else down a notch. But as noted repeatedly so many things were intertwined this year and these two are an inseparable couple despite their individual characteristics.
When a person moved to Juneau the inevitable agony was answering the question of finding a place to live. When almost any story about struggles at a businesses/organization/bureaucracy arose it was inevitably linked to a shortage of workers due at least in part to — wait for it — affordable/available housing.
Local government functions from health care to plowing streets suffered mightily due to worker shortages, not to mention the city-run Eaglecrest Ski Area getting national headlines for having to curb operations due to a lack of people willing to work for less than the federal minimum wage (which did subsequently get bumped up somewhat). Hospice and Home Care of Juneau shut down after 20 years, leaving a critical care gap. So did the Helping Hands Food Bank after 39 years, adding even more woes to the state falling months behind in processing food stamp applications for the neediest households.
A study presented to city leaders in November found the lack of housing is leaving jobs in Juneau unfilled and in turn preventing economic development in Juneau.While the city’s population increased by nearly 1,000 residents during the past decade, there are far fewer dwelling units per adult in Juneau compared to 12 years ago, according to the study. It also pointed to Juneau’s aging population as another possible factor leading to an increased demand for housing, noting the number of people aged 65 and older living alone more than doubled from 2015 to 2020.
Numerous projects and proposals to provide additional housing, including some designated for low-income households and seniors, did progress during the year. But high prices and local vacancy rates remain a foundational aspect of trying to reside in Juneau as the year ends.
1. Political eruption of Alaska’s first ranked choice elections
More than anything else this was connected to everything else involving the past, present and future of every Juneau resident in 2022.
When the year began Alaska’s newly enacted ranked choice voting process and national anguish about the direction of the country, where basic foundations of the democratic process were in doubt, meant the midterms were going to be anything but mundane. Then longtime Rep. Don Young died in March and, in a fitting tribute, the political landscape got volcanic.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin grabbed the early headlines as one of the 48 candidates — whose names included Santa Claus and Lady Donna Dutchess — seeking to replace Young in an August special election. But the “celebrity politician” of the race turned out to be Mary Peltola, a former state representative and Alaska Native tribal leader from Bethel, who promoted perky “pro-fish” policies while Palin and her primary Republican challenger Nick Begich III tore each other apart. The historic first ranked choice tally of the August election also made history as Peltola became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and Alaska’s first Democrat in the U.S. House in 50 years.
The general election between the same three candidates simply turned up the volume to 11, with Peltola winning a dominant ranked choice win rather than the narrow victory a few months earlier.
Alaska’s other Congressional race also came down to the ranked choice tally as incumbent Lisa Murkowski won a fourth term by defeating fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka, the favored choice of the state’s political apparatus and former President Donald Trump during a visit to Alaska in July. Murkowski’s political detractors claimed the entire reason ranked choice voting was put before voters (who approved it) was to shield the perceived moderate from true red-blooded conservative challengers, although the billions she secured in federal funds proved more than adequate to win both the ranked choice tally by a fair margin and the re-support of the state political party.
The moderating influence of ranked choice voting resonated in other big ways statewide and locally. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy didn’t need second-choice votes to win a second term, but because it appears there is a strong chance he will be working with bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the Alaska State Legislature during the upcoming session has so far sounded a far more moderate tone on his agenda than his budget-slashing first days four years ago. And while he also is promising to introduce some kind of proposed constitutional amendment to limit abortion rights after a constitutional convention was rejected 2-1 by voters, he acknowledged the provisions of it might be less drastic than if a higher ratio of Republicans were returning to the Alaska State Capitol.
Plenty of Alaskans (mostly on the losing side) complained and sometimes made conspiratorial allegations about the ranked choice process, including Palin who made more headlines by being the first to sign a petition to repeal the process in time for the 2024 elections. But national and global observers generally offered glowing praise for what they called one of the biggest politicial surprises and triumphs of 2022, stating Alaska’s results may well serve as a role model for other states to imitate in the wake of widespread worries about the stability of the country’s future.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com