Alaska Editorials


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July 27, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: We can reap benefits from state elders' knowledge if we listen

There's an old saying attributed to the Native people of Alaska's panhandle: "A tall tree has fallen." It's a metaphor commenting on the passing of a prominent figure in the community, and every so often it sees re-use when an elder or a state leader passes. Such an occurrence took place earlier this month with the death of Native leader Don Wright, who was a prominent figure both in state politics and Native affairs for more than half of his 84 years living in the Interior. He was a tall tree indeed.

Mr. Wright began his activism on behalf of the Native community in the 1960s, when he worked to organize the Alaska Federation of Natives. It's hard to imagine the state now without the organization, which speaks louder than any other in addressing Native issues in Alaska. Mr. Wright was president of AFN in 1971, when he helped draft the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon. ANCSA granted 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million to Alaska's Native people in compensation for their land claims in the state — the act was also responsible for the establishing of the Native corporations that now play large roles in communities around the state.

It's been a difficult year for leaders in the Native community, as many who played foundational advocacy roles are now of an age that their numbers are dwindling. Mr. Wright joined education leader Bernice Joseph, who died in January after blazing a trail in the field of higher education. At the time of her death, Ms. Joseph was the vice chancellor for rural and community education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but — as a speaker at her memorial joked — to the Native people, she was the president of the University of Alaska. And only a few days ago, elder Dorothy Perdue died here in Fairbanks — the wife of Frank Perdue, an Athabascan tribal advocate and founder of the Fairbanks Native Association, she saw many changes for her people over the course of her lifetime.

To have so many leaders still living who played a role in formative times in Alaska's history is a virtue of being a young state. Admitted to the union in 1959, Alaska is joined by only Hawaii as a state whose founders — some of them, at least — are still around to give input on present issues. A handful of delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention are still around, and perhaps not surprisingly, some are still active in politics. Though Jack Coghill and Vic Fischer, two of those figures, may not see eye to eye on too many political issues, it's hard to dispute that both are a tremendous asset as a sort of conscience for the state and representatives of one of Alaska's greatest political triumphs.

As the years pass, we will have fewer and fewer of these tall trees around to grace us with their wealth of experience, and before long we will find ourselves as the first generation of Alaskans who have to chart our own course without the founders of the state and its greatest institutions to guide us. If we take the time to listen and absorb the lessons that these elders can teach us, we'll be ready to shoulder that tremendous responsibility when it comes.

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July 26, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: As city waxes and wanes, fortunes shift for Fairbanks' city core

On July 26, 1950, Fairbanks industrialist Austin E. "Cap" Lathrop was killed by a coal car at the mine he owned in Healy. Lathrop was a powerful businessman and one of the town's most polarizing figures, and it was his vision more than any other of the era that saw downtown Fairbanks become a vibrant center for the town.

Lathrop came to Fairbanks in its early days as a mining town and swiftly established himself as a movie theater mogul throughout the state, building Empress theaters in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Cordova, as well as the Lacey Street theater in Fairbanks and the Fourth Avenue theater in Anchorage. Lathrop built several of the first modern buildings in the Interior, with the Empress the first building in Fairbanks made of concrete — skeptics contended that the material would crumble in the town's extreme cold.

As Lathrop's business empire expanded, so did downtown, but after his death the city core would suffer from the phenomenon that made Alaska rich — the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. In the pipeline years, downtown Fairbanks was busier than ever, but an oil downturn in the mid-1980s left buildings and businesses empty and exacerbated the city's problems of homelessness and public inebriation. As businesses came to Fairbanks, they set up shop outside the city core, and buildings like the Polaris, which once housed a hotel and multiple restaurants, became eyesores.

Fortunately, as the Fairbanks economy recovered in the 1990s and 2000s, efforts to revitalize the downtown core started to bear fruit. Downtown businesses banded together to help create Fairbanks Downtown Association, which works to promote the area and clean up its image. The association eventually formed the Community Service Patrol, which has shown success in dealing with public inebriation issues.

Efforts to improve downtown Fairbanks are ongoing — too many storefronts remain empty, and the Polaris Building continues to decay as developer Marc Marlow looks for grant funds and private investors. But the success of downtown events such as the Midnight Sun Festival and Golden Days, as well as the debut of new retail businesses and restaurants in the city core, show the area's potential. Additionally, lower-cost district heat in the area and the pending arrival of natural gas in areas not served by the steam pipes continue to make downtown locations an attractive prospect for potential entrepreneurs.

And just this month, the Fairbanks Community Museum began relocating to Cap Lathrop's old Empress Theater. It's a fitting historical destination for the local nonprofit and a great new use for a vintage building. We hope other downtown venues will see similar use.

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