As a previous manager of Centennial Hall (2005-2009), I feel I have a unique perspective regarding the upcoming propositions on the Oct. 1 ballot for the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election. I support the $4.5 million voters approved in 2017 for improvements to Centennial Hall.
That said, I will be voting “no” on Proposition 3, which asks voters to approve a $4.5 million grant to construct a new Juneau Arts and Cultural Center (JACC) for the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council (JAHC). Let me be clear; I strongly support the arts in our community, think the JAHC is a well-run nonprofit, and have the utmost respect for the executive director. However, I do not support construction of a new facility because this would be a duplication of existing facilities, and a $26.4 million building is a big “ask” during these times of economic uncertainty.
Explanation for the need of a new facility on the JAHC website is weak. The McDowell Group makes no mention of health concerns, or a reluctance to bring performers or conventions to Juneau because of inadequate space. Instead, it states the facility “needs replacement,” and “needs extra meeting rooms and break out spaces,” without any supporting documentation. A radio advertisement for the new JACC cites a new facility will improve “creative capacity, technology, and (get rid of) that funky smell.” I would argue that a new building does not improve creative capacity. Voters already approved new technology updates at Centennial Hall. And a “funky smell” is a weak argument for a new, expensive building.
The floor plans for the new JACC propose a 300 seat performing arts center. We currently have wonderful auditoriums at JDHS (seats 1000), Thunder Mt High School (seats 500), and Egan Hall (seats 150). It also proposes a 5000-square-foot community hall with café and kitchen for trade shows, parties, convention space, and more. Across the parking lot, Centennial Hall has a 12,389 square-foot flexible ballroom and a large, commercial kitchen. The new JACC also proposes leasing meeting rooms and office space. Centennial Hall has four meeting rooms, two lobbies, and the Davis Room area which used to be leased to JCVB. Construction of a sexy, shiny new building does not necessarily bring in more conferences, conventions, performers, or trade shows. While public/private ventures sound wonderful, should revenue streams dry up, the building would likely fall back to the city.
Furthermore, the existing Centennial Hall and JAHC facilities are not fully utilized. A quick review of the past years calendar (September ’18 – August ’19) show there were a total of 119 “dark days” at Centennial Hall and 54 at the JAHC. Dark days are those in which there is not one single rental in the entire facility. Indeed, Juneauites have a wide selection of other facilities to rent. These include DIPAC, Yacht Club, auditoriums, Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Alaska State Museum, Buoy Deck, Glacier Gardens, Hangar on the Wharf, Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, KTOO, State Office Building atrium, Goldtown Nickelodeon, Mount Roberts Tramway, churches, recreation facilities, libraries, and hotels. Most are within a three minute walk from the existing JAHC and Centennial Hall. Several in this corridor recently received new expansions, renovations and updates. Duplication of space means that other facilities lose revenue.
Finally, it seems the timing of Proposition 3 is off. During these times of state and city budget woes, threats to the Alaska Marine Highway System and University of Alaska, and a looming national or global recession, a new JACC seems nice, but not necessary. Proposition 3 requests your vote for a $4.5 million grant, but the actual estimate to construct the new facility is $26 million, the balance which will hopefully be secured through other funding sources.
A 44,000-square-foot building is huge. Imagine a second Centennial Hall across the parking lot from the existing one. Now add a second story over a portion of the building, keeping in mind you cannot fill the existing facility 33% of the time. No, let’s improve the infrastructure we have and dream big when the political and financial environment is healthy. Let us take a deep breath, see how improvements to Centennial Hall shake out, and practice fiscal restraint. If anyone can do this right, it’s the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council — in its current home and its current management.
• Wendie Marriott is the former manager of Centennial Hall. She resides in Douglas.