Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Weaving and Reweaving the Anchorage Story – Part 1

When writing about “sense of place,” I often focus on the “built” aspect because to those for whom the concept remains illusive, it is just the easiest to illustrate.

At dinner a short while ago, a friend who visited Alaska recently asked me to describe “sense of place” there, particularly around Anchorage, from the almost-decade I lived and worked there in community marketing.

His description is “expansive,” a very astute observation because he otherwise seems to view destinations more through the filter of activities and events.

But even for visitors seeking entertainment, the destination is the first consideration with activities falling fifth.  For those seeking recreation, the destination is first and activities second.

But studies of activity/attractions visitors show that three-fourths prefer real or authentic experiences to themed or fantasy experiences.

Even among the latter, say theme parks or casinos, 7-in-10 prefer real or authentic experiences.

But people who are into fantasy such as Disney are often disappointed in Alaska because they expect the vegetation to be lush and towering like the coastal Pacific Northwest or the mountains to be densely carpeted like the Rockies.

Parts of Alaska, including Anchorage, have those attributes too, but they take a backseat to how incredibly expansive the view shed is.

From Anchorage, in any direction, the views are of towering mountains, including ranges and active volcanoes hundreds of miles away, yet they seem to loom so close.  I never grew habituated to it during my near decade of community marketing there.

And it never leaves you.

When I was recruited there in early 1978 my challenge, though, was to flesh out other equally distinct aspects of Anchorage’s sense of place and weave or reweave them into a more inclusive yet ever-evolving story.

These included the quality of the light there, geology, values, history including built and natural, vegetation and wildlife, as well as the work of simplifying logistics for visitors to be able to explore all of the above.

But different than Durham a decade later where a deep and broadly embraced sense of pride was under external threat from jealous rivals, in Anchorage we had to enlist many Anchorage residents there by giving voice to the passionate corps that already felt that way.

As a legacy theme, the CLIO-winning campaign, “Wild About Anchorage” is still in use today.

Anchorage at the time was slightly larger than Spokane, WA where I had been stationed before, but 74,000 people larger at the time than Durham, NC where I would go next, even 24,000 larger at the time than North Carolina’s capital and second largest city, Raleigh.

But at the time, the population of Anchorage represented more than 40% of all Alaskans.

However, half of the population of Anchorage had lived there only six year or less and 20% less than two years.  Only 8%, whom I quickly sought out, had lived there 25 years or more.

About 17% at the time had come there from other parts of Alaska, 30% from the West coast and 14% from the Plains or Rockies.  But 18% had come from the South or border states and 13% from the Northeast including the upper Ohio Valley.

I was among the first to realize this transience when someone made sure I was among the first to receive a copy of new report published in the first few weeks after my arrival there by researchers for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Many moving there seemed either a bit condescending about Anchorage and Alaska’s scenery and sense of place or uncomfortable with their expansiveness. Some 25,000 were projected to move out the year arrived while 32,000 would move there like I did.

My arrival came within months of the first oil to flow down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and only a few years after other transformative changes including unification of the City of Anchorage, then less than 40% of the surrounding Borough’s (akin to a county) population, along with other smaller towns into the Municipality of Anchorage.

It was also only a few years after settlement of Alaska Native claims along with a vote to move the State Capital from remote Juneau to Willow, about 80 miles northwest of Anchorage, which was made moot when four years after my arrival voters rejected the cost.

When I arrived, it had also been less than a decade since the oil discoveries at Prudhoe Bay and just two since its discovery down Cook Inlet to the south and west of Anchorage.

But in 1978, Alaskans were bracing for a loss in population from departing pipeline workers only to be saved by the revolution in Iran the following year and skyrocketing oil prices.

I was just turning 30 years old as I landed there but selected in part to complete start up of Anchorage’s community marketing organization.

But also because my sensibilities were as much or more to integrate tourism into Anchorage’s sense of place as it was to complete the integration of Anchorage into tourism.

Of course, not everyone was a boomer or raider or saw themselves as a transient migrant.

I fell in with a core “stayers” and long-time residents, who in small bands, were already hard at work there preserving historic buildings, local history and culture, open space and trails, nature areas, tree canopy and beautification.

I realize now that when it came to sense of place they were catapulting Anchorage far in advance even today of much older and more established communities in North Carolina where I live in retirement.

My job was to work with these groups to be visitor-ready and weave all of these elements into a coherent Anchorage story that yet preserved other historical identities prior to unification.

Many were rightfully suspicious of tourism interests as being narrow, superficial, stereotypical, short-sighted and overly commercial, which most were and still are across America.

The groundwork laid prior to my arrival, while expert, had largely reinforced this perception.

Bridging those two perspectives is a role far too many DMOs fail to grasp or accept even today.

As was customary at the time, if at all, many in Anchorage only traced sense of place there to establishment of a 1915 tent camp erected by speculators for railroad construction workers less than three years after a couple working for the US Forest Service became the first permanent settlers.

There was both curiosity and disbelief when our fledgling organization quickly enriched the story of Anchorage to include earlier periods.

Dena’ina people who numbered 3,000 there as early as 1650 long before contact with Russian missionaries in the 1830s or even when Captain James Cook’s ship sailed to what is now Anchorage, two hundred years to the month before my arrival.

Soon a historical park organized around a 1830s log Russian Orthodox Church and the colorful Dena’ina burial spirit houses north of downtown, joined midway with the Alaska Native Heritage Center envisioned by several of us during my tenure.

I smiled when just before I retired in Durham, Anchorage officials named a new civic and convention center there after the Dena’ina, a northern relative of the Navaho and the only such group who lived along the coast.

The symbols of Anchorage’s earlier history were still being revealed as we began an inventory, including the still-producing 1896 Crow Creek Mine, dating to when there were only two hundred or fewer Americans beyond southeast Alaska.

For nearly a decade after my arrival, Cynthia Toohey, an emergency room nurse and transplanted New Yorker who eventually became head of my governing board and one of our biggest fans, began an ongoing restoration with her family.

I was astonished at its significance and how little known it had been prior to being added to the National Registry of Historic Places a few weeks after my arrival.

All we had to do was be attentive, curious and willing to reweave it into the emerging Anchorage story.

The illustrated  map shown above as an image in this post dates to 1945.  It was brought back from Alaska by the father of a Durham journalist friend of mine in 1948, the year I was born.

Possibly a place mat used in restaurants, it is precious because it captures the names of the businesses along the bluff above Ship Creek at a time when there were fewer than 30,000 residents.

It also marks a time a decade before Congress would grant Alaska statehood which had been finalized less than two decades before my arrival there in 1978.

It had only been a little more than a decade since the legislature had even organized eight portions of the state into boroughs.

In only the fifth year of my career, less than three since being minted a destination marketing executive, I was too green to realize at the time that our task of illuminating sense of place and weaving a story around what had become Anchorage was as fresh in concept as the new organization we were still polishing as its guardian.

Equidistant during that span since statehood and my arrival would occur a natural event of such magnitude that it would forever shape Anchorage’s sense of urgency about sense of place giving it a unique perspective on what is historical, both long past and near past.

More on that in tomorrow’s post.

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