Juneau’s municipal election is a week away, and the most contentious issue on the ballot has turned out to be a trio of propositions related to funding for the community’s aging arts venues. The debate is over who should fund a new home for the arts in Juneau.
Juneau likes to bill itself as an arts town.
The city owns two venues downtown, Centennial Hall and the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, or JACC — both managed by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.
Council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney said the JACC is workable, but not ideal. The building is actually a 60-year-old former National Guard armory.
“So it’s obviously an old gymnasium. There are no dressing rooms,” DeCherney said, opening the door to a storage closet. “We’re going to be doing a play up here, so let me show you what they’re going to be using for dressing spaces.”
It’s a former munitions vault, packed with chairs and the remnants of past shows. Performers have to keep their costumes in boxes along the wall and take turns changing.
And then there’s the smell.
Even though the JACC’s air has passed inspection, there are artists who won’t display their work in the gallery and singers who won’t perform there.
“Yes, we’re making due. But this is perhaps not on the level with the quality of things we’d like to be able to offer people,” DeCherney said.
Planning and fundraising for a “New JACC” has been underway for years.
Across the parking lot is Centennial Hall. When big acts like Norah Jones and the Alaska Folk Festival come to town, that’s where they play.
The building’s HVAC system is aging. That makes the building temperature unpredictable and results in a lot of extra costs.
“The electric bill for here is, like, jaw dropping,” said House Manager Kathleen Harper. “We spend upwards of $10,000 a month on electric alone.”
She said the sound system and lighting also need updates.
But a big moneymaker for the facility is conferences — it recently hosted the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., who hosted the event, brought over furniture from its own office.
In addition to basic maintenance, neither facility has a permanent theater or stage. The Juneau Symphony performs at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.
So with two aging venues in need of upgrades, the Juneau Assembly approved three ballot measures for the public to decide what the priorities should be.
The first proposition asks whether to approve a 2% increase to the hotel bed tax for 15 years. The city plans to use the money earned for improvements to Centennial Hall.
Next, Proposition 2 asks voters if the city should issue up to $7 million in bonds to raise about $400,000 a year for additional upgrades to that building.
And finally, Proposition 3 would provide a $4.5 million city grant for the New JACC, paid for from sales tax revenue.
But whether the city should help fund a new arts and culture center with a 300-seat theater and 5,000-square-foot main hall is a matter of debate.
“This has nothing to do with whether or not it would be nice to have a new JACC, the question is: who ought to pay for it?” said Denny DeWitt. He chairs Worried Juneau Taxpayers, a group campaigning against Proposition 3.
Central to DeWitt and other opponent’s concerns is the confusing language used on the ballot.
“There’s a serious math problem here,” said Rosemary Hagevig, another member of the group. “I’m not sure the way that it’s been done in the public process that the public really has a clear understanding of what’s going on.”
A lot of that confusion comes down to the fact that the Assembly approved three separate ballot questions asking voters whether to fund upgrades to two city arts venues through three different types of funding mechanisms.
Even the ballot measure’s supporters admit its confusing.
“I know the Assembly worked really hard to make it not so, but it’s confusing to explain all of these different financing structures,” said Minta Montalbo, campaign manager for the local group campaigning in support of Proposition 3.
Montalbo said she and other New JACC supporters see the two buildings as intertwined in supporting Juneau’s arts community. That’s why funding both would be the ideal outcome.
“The fact of the matter is, these projects were designed to complement each other,” Montalbo said. “Centennial Hall has certain audiences that need those services, and the JACC has other audiences that need those services.”
The New JACC is projected to cost $26.4 million to build. Supporters say they’ve raised about 20% of that so far, but Montalbo said a city contribution would open up paths for them to apply for matching funds from national and state foundations.
That doesn’t persuade DeWitt. He thinks the propositions are needlessly confusing and could put unfair burden on taxpayers.
“We don’t need to think of the taxpayers as the local bankers for this project,” he said.
Whatever happens — if all of the propositions pass, don’t pass or some do and some don’t — the Juneau Assembly ultimately has discretion to appropriate whatever money is raised as it sees fit.
Find information about Juneau’s upcoming municipal election, including full ballot measure language, here.