My Turn: Let’s get the whale right

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Thursday, October 15, 2015 1:03am
  • Opinion

The ongoing saga of where the bronze whale should be located continues. A bid opening last week revealed the planned Bridge Park location and connecting seawalk will cost $13.9 million — $2.8 million more than predicted — casting some doubt on the project.

Recently I attended a presentation by Bob Janes, owner of Gastineau Guiding in Juneau, about his plan to locate an Ocean Interpretive Center adjacent to the old subport property on the waterfront directly across Egan Drive from the Prospector Hotel.

While this idea is not new, it’s receiving serious attention as opposition continues to mount to the whale’s proposed out-of-the-way location near the Douglas Bridge. Janes proposes co-locating the whale with the OIC, where it would be an integral part of the ocean theme and a more accessible and visible attraction for Juneau. His plan includes a transition schedule allowing the whale to be installed on the site in the fall of 2016 before the OIC is constructed. He also offered to facilitate obtaining a visible temporary location for the whale until then.

The proposed 11,000-square-foot OIC visitors center and maritime museum would be owned and operated by a self-supporting non-profit entity focused on ocean ecology of the Alaskan Pacific. Visitor admissions and concessions would fund operations, educational programs and activities. Using an electrically-powered marine vessel to move tourists to the site would relieve parking requirements and downtown bus congestion, while highlighting uses of alternative energy sources benefiting our planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Other features include a sloped roof-top community park space over a curved front wall of glass facing south to Skip Wallen’s magnificent whale sculpture appearing to emerge from Gastineau Channel.

The presentation, hosted by the Downtown Improvement Group, was attended by over 50 people. From questions and comments afterward, it was obvious there were few people in favor of the bridge location for the whale. Even members of the whale committee in attendance tacitly admitted the new site was a superior location — going as far as offering to move the whale later to the OIC site when it was available. But they adamantly opposed postponing its scheduled July 2016 installation in the yet-to-be-built Bridge Park.

However, postponing the installation has several distinct advantages.

• First, it will avoid spending millions of dollars of city money creating a site in a new park for the whale along with all the other required visitor amenities such as public bathrooms, upgraded roadway, paving, curb and gutters, lighting, and more that has not been identified or incorporated into the final cost.

• Secondly, and equally as important, without the whale sculpture committed to the OIC site from the outset, it becomes more difficult for OIC supporters to raise the $12.9 million funding necessary to build the facility. In fact, putting the whale in its currently selected location could actually “compete” with the OIC and harm its fundraising effort.

It’s understandable that members of the Whale Committee and Assembly might be reluctant to agree to a delay after working long and hard on securing funding and selecting a site. Admittedly, the OIC plan has arrived late in the game. But does it make sense to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a site that is clearly a poor location when there’s a possibility of achieving a much better result elsewhere?

Work needs to be completed to nail down the OIC site, secure necessary permits and raise needed funds. But, with wider community support behind the OIC plan, it has an excellent chance of success. Preliminary conversations with all the parties involved have been very positive. Cost estimates and fundraising plans have been formulated while negotiating the services of a nationally-respected fundraising professional.

Downtown revitalization is one of the CBJ Assembly’s top priorities. Yet, the current whale/park plan would actually detract from the downtown core and miss an opportunity to tie into a world-class Ocean Interpretive Center near the new State Library and Archives Museum. Additionally, it would link to conferences and educational/cultural activities occurring in and around Centennial Hall and the proposed Willoughby Arts Complex.

According to whale enthusiast Bruce Botelho, he feels morally obliged to erect the whale as soon as possible in order to respect the wishes of whale donors. If the entire whale/park project was funded privately, that might be a legitimate position to take. But with millions of dollars of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars at stake, I believe there is an obligation to use those funds as efficiently as possible.

For those who want to know more about the Ocean Interpretive Center, Bob Janes has scheduled a presentation to the CBJ Assembly on Monday, Oct. 26. I urge anyone interested to attend and lend further support to the project.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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