This image shows the site plan of the proposed Capital Civic Center. (City and Borough of Juneau)

This image shows the site plan of the proposed Capital Civic Center. (City and Borough of Juneau)

Opinion: Capital Civic Center concerns

Show us that the CCC will pay for itself, or ask us to vote to subsidize it.

  • By Murray Walsh
  • Wednesday, April 19, 2023 12:01pm
  • Opinion

Juneau voted on a couple of bond proposals in 2019. One was to fund some improvements to Centennial Hall, which passed and one to fund a new Juneau Arts and Culture Center that did not. Why approve one and not the other? My guess is the public felt in the dark about what the costs of the JACC would be, both capital, that is the money to build it, and the cost to maintain and operate the JACC (M&O) which is the focus here.

Since 2021, the folks who were pushing for the new JACC have been touting a new proposal, the Capital Civic Center that is far more elaborate than the original JACC concept and proposes a vastly expanded CH as well as the JACC. The cost estimates have been elusive, but the number $80 million has been bandied about. Operating costs and revenues are murky as well. Even so, the CBJ Assembly has set aside $15 million toward construction and has appropriated another $2 million for design. There is some wind behind the CCC and we cannot ignore it.

The CBJ has several “enterprise” branches like the airport and hospital that pay for their own M&O. There are others that require annual subsidies to operate. These include Eaglecrest and, to my surprise, Centennial Hall, which needs subsidy of about $600,000 a year.

I think all of us would agree that taxpayer-paid M&O for things that benefit all of us like police, fire and parks is just fine. The issue gets tougher when you are talking about a facility that is aimed at directly benefiting a limited portion of the community. CCC proponents are likely to say “A performing arts center is good for the whole community, right?” Well, it is good for the people who buy tickets to go see Slavic clogging dancers or Weird Al Yankovic but that might be something less than the total public.

The proponents appear to be promoting the CCC as a grant-funded undertaking which would mean the public would not have a chance to vote on the matter. If the proponents, and the CBJ can assure us that the CCC will pay for itself well into the future, most of us would not be concerned. So, the questions are: will the CCC fully support itself into the future? Who tells us that it will? Has a disinterested expert third party expert concurred? What happens if it doesn’t pay for itself?

I was around when CH was built with state money. I have been there many times and I would call it an essential part of Juneau’s cultural life. Paying the subsidy does not bother me but it must be noted that CH is only used at half its actual capacity. That fact alone makes it hard to believe we need a new JACC, let alone the CCC.

If the convention, public event, and visitors market cannot fill up CH, then that market will not fill new facilities either. It is not enough to say “If we build it, they will come.” The proponents must specify who “they” is; who? how many? local or visitor? And also: why will they come?

There was talk of relocating current events that occur in other performance venues, like schools and churches, to the new facility as a way of expanding the market to service the CCC. Unless the CCC will be cheaper to use than a church – no way that will be the case– those events will stay put. The city can’t force such relocations and the current venue owners would resist, strenuously.

So, let us say this to the proponents and the Assembly: “Do not try to dodge the taxpayers by avoiding a vote. Show us, convincingly, that the CCC will pay for itself, down the line, or ask us to vote to subsidize it.” I might vote yes, if I thought it might bring Queen Ida back.

• Murray Walsh has lived in Juneau for nearly five decades. He operates a land use planning consulting service. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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