FAIRBANKS — Local business and city leaders are working to get more people in downtown Fairbanks, back to the Interior city's core business district and the center of its history. Like a lot of small cities across the nation, the big malls in outlying areas has drawn shoppers away and downtown retailers have dwindled in number.
The city's only remaining downtown quality men's clothing store, Carrs Clothing, is bravely hanging in there, along with another clothing retailer, Big Ray's, which specializes in work and cold weather clothing.
Fairbanks has also cleaned up its downtown, closing most of the rowdy but colorful bars on Second Avenue, known as the infamous "Two Street" when the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was being built in the 1970s.
The bars are mostly gone now. Second Avenue is quieter and safer, but there are parking lots and spaces where buildings once stood that give the area an empty feeling. Some feel the cleanup went too far, and took away a bit of Fairbanks' "wild west" feel. However, Fairbanks' city Mayor Jerry Cleworth, who is downtown retailer himself (Cleworth owns Alaska Rare Coins) said he'd rather have safe streets than that wild west feeling.
Cleworth grew up in Fairbanks and remembers the earlier years fondly.
"In the 1960s, before the malls, downtown was where everything was and it was a lively place," he said.
Downtown Fairbanks now has possibilities, Cleworth thinks. The Marriott Hotel, built just 10 years ago on Second Avenue, is doing well. The hotel caters mainly to traveling Alaskans, including business travelers, who like a downtown location so they can walk to places. Big Ray's, down the street, also does well.
Those are clues that businesses can do OK downtown, Cleworth said.
Craig Ingham, president of Mt. McKinley Bank, Fairbanks' local community bank, said the local economy is generally stable, albeit a little soft. The community, along with the state, has generally withstood the jolts that have hit the Lower 48, he said, although high local energy costs are a major concern.
Local Fairbanks business groups meanwhile are actively working on downtown revitalization. The nonprofit Festival Fairbanks is pursuing a long-term public space improvement plan that has been partly implemented.
There are now attractive green public spaces, walking paths, rest areas and overlooks, as well as flower beds along the downtown side of the Chena River. There is a pedestrian bridge crossing the river to more green spaces near Doyon Ltd.'s corporate office building.
Michelle Roberts, Festival Fairbanks' director, is working with the Alaska Railroad Corp. to develop equivalent riverside green space, walking and bicycle paths along the north side of the river. When that is complete there will be pedestrian and bike-friendly green space on both sides of the Chena for a considerable distance, with more pedestrian bridges so that people can walk in loops along the river, Roberts said.
Another idea among city workers, just a gleam in the eye at this point, is to extend track from Pioneer Park, Fairbanks' historical and visitor center, to the city center as a way to shuttle tourists and pedestrians. Light-weight rails could possibly be laid on city streets and rights-of-way.
A longer-term redevelopment plan also is taking shape for downtown itself, guided by a new committee of people who work and own property downtown, Cleworth said. The goal is to make the city's core more pedestrian-friendly with more trees and green spaces.
The city has $6 million left from a series of downtown street improvements that can be reallocated to the improvements, Cleworth said. The improvements are being coordinated with a plan to realign and redevelop other streets just north of the Cushman Street bridge.
All of this won't revitalize the downtown by itself, Cleworth said, but it is being supplemented by an important strategy pursued by a second nonprofit, the Fairbanks Downtown Association, to sponsor events. This is proving to be effective and popular, the mayor said.
A Solstice celebration is a big success, bringing throngs of people downtown, and this adds to Fairbanks' traditional and much older Golden Days celebration, a project of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. There are also new weekly downtown Farmers' Markets, which sell far more than food.
"We've found that events are the way to bring people downtown. It works," Cleworth said.
Festival Fairbanks does a lot of other things, too, including community flower gardens and a vegetable garden in front of city hall that provides fresh produce for low-income families. A "clean team" managed and financed by the group appears daily on downtown streets in summer and winter to clean debris and make sure sidewalks and public areas are clean and passable, Roberts said.
There are some short-term challenges facing downtown revitalization, however. While there are people walking around the downtown and even shopping, tourists are noticeably absent.
"One problem we're having is to get the tour companies to bring tourists downtown," Cleworth said.
In previous years Princess Cruises and Holland America had a schedule to bring visitors downtown at midday, which helped restaurants and retail shops. This ended this year when a relationship was forged with the Binkley family's Riverboat Discovery group of businesses, which include a large restaurant and gift shop along with the popular Riverboat Discovery sternwheelers, a popular river day-cruise.
The tour companies worked to compensate with a late afternoon and early evening shuttle downtown but the effect hasn't been the same.
"We need to sit down and brainstorm this with the tour companies, to find a solution," Cleworth said.
The mayor's hope is to persuade Princess Cruises and Holland America to allow visitors more than one day in Fairbanks on their schedules.
Something old, something new
Another challenge is to remove a real downtown embarrassment, the derelict and empty Polaris Building, Cleworth said. This is to Fairbanks what the abandoned MacKay Building was to Anchorage for years – an eye-sore – until the MacKay Building was renovated.
Anchorage developer Marc Marlowe owns both buildings. Cleworth hopes Marlowe will be successful with the Polaris Building, but for now it serves as a stark, visual reminder of the decay of the downtown area.
Visually, downtown Fairbanks is appealing in many respects. There is a 1960s feel to the core downtown, First Avenue through Sixth Avenue, where older buildings are mixed with new. Second Avenue still has diagonal parking and the historic Co-Op Drug has been renovated into arts, gift and coffee shops, and the Co-Op's lunch counter still has booths and stools preserved and restored from the 1960s.
The old Lacey Street Theater is still there, although it is now used for other purposes. Above the Co-Op, Fairbanks' local theater group stages Shakespeare productions.
Fairbanks wants more tourists downtown, but the absence of the multitude of T-shirt shops that is a feature of cities that host masses of tourists can also be pleasing, at least for Alaskan visitors.
The decay of the Polaris Building is partly offset by the attractive designs of the nearby Marriott Hotel and the Mt. McKinley Bank building, built in 2008.
The Doyon corporate office across the Chena River, easily visible from First Avenue and reached by a pedestrian bridge, also has an attractive design that fits in well with the environment.
Toss in the quirky gray-and-pink box design of the KeyBank building, and the adjacent Aurora Energy building, owned by the Usibelli coal-mining family that also owns the Aurora coal power plant near the downtown.
Fairbanks' long history is evident with its older, well-preserved federal courthouse that is now privately owned and used for offices and some retail, and the original city office building on Cushman Street, now a historic museum.
The city's offices are now located in the old Main School building also on Cushman Street, which has been rebuilt. It was once the only school in Fairbanks.
Ingham, of Mt. McKinley Bank, said Fairbanks' downtown core is still mainly business and professional offices and not heavily retail, and that balance that should be preserved.
The bank believes in downtown, too.
"Our board made the decision to stay in the downtown core area when we built our new building," he said.
A downtown revitalization plan should focus on a mix of uses and not become too focused on retail, he said.
Fairbanks' retail used to be concentrated downtown. The city had Woolworth's, a Nordstrom's and J.C. Penney stores downtown. Those are all gone now – the more recently arrived large stores are now on the outskirts – but there is still a mix of small and medium-sized retail downtown.
Some older buildings could be removed, Ingham said, and a plan to redevelop that space them with an emphasis on parks and green space is a good one, but he cautioned also about too much emphasis on pedestrian access to the point that traffic becomes congested. That would discourage people from coming downtown, the opposite of what is hoped for.