Fairbanks gears up to host first AFN gathering since 2010


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Vernon Elavgak, left, and his son, Kennedy, perform an Inupiat dance at the opening of the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention on Oct. 18, 2012, in Anchorage. They are part of the Tagiugmiut Dancers of Barrow. For the first time since 2010 and only the fourth time ever, Fairbanks is hosting the AFN Convention this fall.

Photo/Dan Joling/AP

The Alaska Federation of Natives Convention is headed back to Fairbanks this year for the first time since 2010.

“When the convention is in Fairbanks, the whole community gets involved, which is outstanding,” AFN spokesperson Ben Mallott said.

The last time the convention was in Fairbanks, hundreds of welcome signs across the city greeted AFN officials and attendees, Mallott said.

In recent years the convention, which draws 4,000 to 5,000 attendees annually according to AFN, has been held in at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. This year, as in 2010, it will be held at the Carlson Center Oct. 24 to 26 and will be preceded by the First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference Oct. 21 to 23.

It’s estimated the convention generates about $4 million in overall economic activity for the host city. Fairbanks also hosted the AFN Convention in 2005 and 2007.

Helen Renfrew, who spearheaded convention efforts for the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said AFN officials should consider the city’s comparatively small size to Anchorage a plus.

“When AFN comes to Fairbanks, it is the big show. Everything in Fairbanks is all about AFN,” Renfrew said.

The AFN board of directors determines the convention’s location every year based on a competitive bidding process. The announcement for where it will be held the upcoming year is typically made shortly after the convention in late fall. It gives the Native delegates a chance to discuss the bid with their constituents at the convention, Renfrew said.

She added that Juneau and Fairbanks were asked by the board of directors to bid for the convention in 2004. When it was determined Juneau does not possess adequate infrastructure to handle the gathering, it became a competition between Fairbanks and Anchorage, and has been ever since.

“Really, everyone knows what we’ve got. Everyone knows what Fairbanks has and everyone knows what Anchorage has,” Renfrew said. “Really, it comes down to the welcome, it comes down to the hospitality.”

Fairbanks leaders have assembled 12 committees with more than 100 volunteers to coordinate the three-day AFN event, she said. While the city’s collaborative spirit is showcased during the convention, Renfrew said many of the committee members gather on a regular basis to work to better the city, whether AFN is in town or not.

Sales at the art show portion of the convention are a prime example of the community’s enthusiasm for the conference.

“The artists at the Customary Alaska Native Art Show love coming to Fairbanks because they tend to sell out,” Renfrew said. “There are an awful lot of Fairbanksans that do some early Christmas shopping at the show.”

She encourages prospective AFN attendees to visit afnfairbanks.com to monitor daily updated availability of the city’s 3,100 hotel rooms.

A new, 21,000-square foot pavilion at the Carlson Center will provide added space for more art vendors, she said. Where about 165 vendors fit into the Dena’ina Center last year, Fairbanks will have space for more than 180, Renfrew noted.

Mallott said this year’s agenda is in the process of being finalized, and a U.S. Senate field hearing held by Sen. Mark Begich on subsistence issues appears likely.

Last year Sen. Lisa Murkowski held several hearings in Anchorage during the AFN gathering.

Renfrew said discussions about a rotating schedule for the AFN Convention between Anchorage and Fairbanks are ongoing, but she understands that not knowing where it will be held prevents potential complacency — something she’s not worried about happening in her city.

However, she does advocate for increased lead-time of two years between the hosting decision and the event, compared with the typical 10 months now. Renfrew said it would give local business and nonprofit sponsors more time to budget for supporting the event.

That is a decision left up to the AFN board, she said, and regardless of when the decision is made, Fairbanks looks forward to hosting future AFN Conventions.

“Fairbanks is ready, willing, and able to answer all questions and we have every intention of putting on an absolutely fantastically coordinated community-wide welcome of the AFN, all their delegates, attendees, friends and family,” Renfrew said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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