Nearly Willow

On July 3, 2011 · 2 Comments

Many months ago I explored the Worst State Capital Locations and received a number of thoughtful and insightful comments. I examined conditions from various perspectives including the most inconveniently located state capital for an individual traveling from the largest city. Juneau, Alaska won that part of the competition hands-down; residents from Anchorage face a daunting 850 mile road trip including a leg through Canada plus a ferry ride. Realistically, most people fly.

One comment mentioned Willow, Alaska, a small town north of Anchorage. Occasionally I receive search engine visitors seeking information about Willow that I can trace directly to that comment. One of them recently concerned a housing subdivision that was created in anticipation of the state capital moving to Willow, which of course never happened.

I’m not sure what the anonymous visitor hoped to uncover but it sounded like an interesting question. Ultimately I couldn’t find the subdivision, or at least nothing that fit a Lower 48 definition of one, but I did learn more about the situation in Willow. Land values boomed, speculators planned for a huge influx of new residents, and then the bubble burst.

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How close did Willow come to becoming the new state capital of Alaska? Surprisingly close. Had events gone just slightly differently, this rural stretch of the George Parks Highway (which I drove last summer on the way to Talkeetna) would have become a bustling city by now.

Juneau made a lot of sense as the capital of Alaska at the turn of the last century, and several decades before statehood. Much of the population clustered along the southeastern coast. Ships were the dominant form of long-distance transportation. Juneau was a logical choice. The population center shifted considerably over the next century towards Anchorage and a swath of territory up through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (home of 12MC’s secret admirer) to Fairbanks, all connected by highway eventually. Consider the latest population figures from the 2010 Census:

  • Anchorage: 292k (374k in metro area)
  • Fairbanks: 35K (100k in metro area)
  • Juneau: 31k

Nearly half of all Alaskans live in the Anchorage metropolitan area.

This isn’t a recent trend. A snowball effect started with the advent of oil exploration and extraction since statehood. Alaska’s population continues to grow at double-digit rates each decade. Juneau, perched on a narrow shelf between steep coastal mountains and the Gastineau Channel has little room to expand. Anchorage can continue to expand practically forever.

Those basic circumstances underlie proponent’s efforts to move the state capital. The issue has come up repeatedly. I’ve compiled a brief chronology from the University of Alaska and several others sources I examined:

  • 1974 – Alaska voters approved an initiative to move the capital from Juneau (after defeated initiatives in 1960 and 1962).
  • 1976 – They decided that the capital would move to Willow.
  • 1982 – However, Alaska voters subsequently repealed the initiative and denied funding for the move.
  • 1994 – Proponents tried again but voters defeated the proposal.
  • 2002 – They then tried to move the Legislature. Juneau would remain the capital (home of the executive branch). That failed too.
  • 2011 – The effort seems to have lost much of its momentum.

The final development I found — another attempt to move the Legislature — was recorded in a January 2011 article in the Anchorage Daily News.

Few issues have burned hotter since statehood than whether the capital should be moved from Juneau closer to Alaska’s population center. It’s about power, access and, to hear some tell it, the very survival of Juneau. But the debate has faded from the fore in recent years, and the instant death of the latest proposal is a sign lawmakers just don’t care that much at this point.

But why Willow? That question can probably be framed more appropriately as "why not Anchorage?" It’s the center of population and it’s an economic engine. However, many Alaskans view "Los Anchorage" differently than "real" Alaska. Moving the capital to Anchorage would elevate the importance of Anchorage to an even greater level, to the perceived detriment of everyone else.

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Willow seemed to have been selected by default. The proposed capital would have to be close to Anchorage but not too close. Selecting something in the direction of Fairbanks could generate additional votes. However, make no mistake, Willow is much closer to Anchorage than to Fairbanks.

Very little infrastructure existed in Willow at the time and little more exists there today. A capital city would have to rise from the muskeg like an Alaskan version of Brasília. It would also crash the economy of Juneau which depends heavily on government spending. Cost estimates varied depending on point of view but they seemed to float to about two or three billion dollars in modern values.

Voters decided that Willow would become the capital. That’s how close it came. It would have happened if only the price tag had not become a political issue and a cause to reconsider.

It seems Willow’s opportunity has passed.

On July 3, 2011 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Nearly Willow”

  1. Peter says:

    Having the capital in an inconvenient location is completely irrelevant for the vast majority of a state’s residents. Except for legislators, lobbyists, some media representatives and a few others, very few people would have any particular reason to travel to a state capital. In the case of Alaska, I’m assuming that there are branch offices of state agencies in Anchorage (and probably elsewhere) that can handle almost all dealings that people would have with the state government.

  2. Lillian Belgarde says:

    Maybe there are a lot of people who live in Alaska would like to visit the Capital, but they can’t afford to fly in and stay at a hotel. Since they had even put it to a vote and it passed, I’m sure there were a lot of happy people that had their dreams smashed when it didn’t happen because of the funds.

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