Many people think of Girdwood as a laid-back ski town, more about recreating, than business. What lies behind the scenes is actually a very organized and impassioned group of citizens who focus on issues that matter to them most. Girdwood, Inc is one such example of a 501(c)3 voluntary board dedicated to our community. In this newsletter, we will summarize many different topics as relates to our neck of the woods, introduce a community champion and spotlight a regional organization.
With spring in full swing and summer upon us, we wanted to spotlight Girdwood Bear Aware and its founder, Alayna DuPont. Girdwood Bear Aware is a sponsored organization of Girdwood, Inc.
Alayna moved to Girdwood five years ago to be closer to family and the mountains. She works for the National Park Service and her husband, Phil Zumstein, works at the Glacier District for the Chugach National Forest. She got the idea for Girdwood Bear Aware after early one morning, a bear casually opened their front door and sauntered inside. She was shocked to realize that this was not only accepted as commonplace in town but help for such an incident was an hour away. It felt like it was time for Girdwood to invest in localized and proactive strategies to reduce human-bear conflict. Working with community leadership, Alayna founded Girdwood Bear Aware (GBA). GBA is trained and permitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to respond when human-bear conflict occurs. While this effort has made an incredible impact, it is really in the hands of each community member to make the biggest difference.
A message from Alayna: “Being bear aware in Girdwood means we are all keeping garbage cans in a garage or secured with straps until the morning of pick up, taking down bird feeders from April-November, making sure dumpsters and public waste bins are always closed locked properly, and keeping doors locked and ground level windows closed. Coexisting with bears in Girdwood is a community issue, we are all in it together!”
It appears our home Mount Alyeska was the snowiest resort in North America this winter, with well over 800” (60+ feet) of snow. Many locals and visitors took advantage of the rare treat of weekend continuation of mountain lift operations into mid-May. It will be remembered as “one for the books,” memories of warm spring slush and deep powder days, leaving many hopeful participants wishing for repeat seasons like this.
Girdwood is emerging as a major Municipal and Alaskan attraction, the only destination resort like it in the State. The Resort’s new Nordic Spa is world class and the community’s many other resources are attracting plenty of visitors. The spa is now open on a limited “Phase I” basis. We understand “Phase 2” to be open in about 45 days. The final addition of “Phase III” and full spa opening is expected this fall. At the top of the tram, Girdwood Inc.’s Roundhouse at Alyeska expects a lot of traffic this season with a strong showing of independent travelers and the reappearance of cruise ship passengers.
Growth and Girdwood’s widening appeal leads to challenges. One is land, which is needed for commercial, residential, community and industrial needs. Almost all the unencumbered land around Girdwood is held by the Municipalities’ Heritage Land Bank (HLB). Girdwood Inc. has been meeting with Anchorage city leaders, advocating for the proper, beneficial use of these municipal lands.
While net growth is limited by a lack of available housing, we are seeing changes to our demographics. Like many resort towns, housing is being taken by professionals, retirees and others who can decide to live here. Another challenge is brought about by technology and web-based services that enable people to rent a house like a hotel room. While short term rental can contribute positively toward the local economy, it can simultaneously negatively affect local workforce such as long-term renter displacement. Despite high buyer demand, very little inventory is coming up for sale. What does come up, sells very fast, usually with multiple offers and often higher than the asking price.
Numerous testimonies were provided to government committees and officials by local businesses regarding the severe staffing and housing shortage from restaurants, service companies and other employers. As an example of the impact, many restaurants have limited their menus and hours of operation. Several businesses are having to tap the commuting workforce from Anchorage, which can be costly, unpredictable, and is prone to high staff-turnover. The hiring challenge extends to several industries, with current and potential employees simply unable find a local place to live.
Recent Girdwood Land Use Committee and Girdwood Board of Supervisor’s public meetings have seen an uptick of support for workforce housing be included in the new development project. Suggestions include restrictions to make this housing not eligible to short term rental. As discussed in our previous newsletters, the Municipality’s Heritage Land Bank (HLB), has released a “Request For Proposal” (RFP) for development on a huge block of land. Part of this RFP land is commonly known as “Holtan Hills.” Unfortunately, the current selected proposal lacks a clear plan for our most critical need, workforce housing, among other issues. We are very supportive of development, but we also must do it right. Visit Girdwood, AKA Girdwood Chamber of Commerce, recently put forward a proposed resolution calling for amending the selected RFP development plan to specifically include workforce housing or suggests the current development plan should be abandoned. This is a very important priority for us, and we encourage individuals and organizations to attend Girdwood Land Use Committee June 13th and write firstname.lastname@example.org in support of this resolution. Our previous newsletter referenced the April 28th HLB Advisory Commission meeting. This meeting was cancelled “due to staffing shortages” and indicated the next meeting date is May 26th. As of publication of this newsletter, meeting information and agenda has not been publicly noticed. We will post to our Facebook page and website when more information becomes available.
Another important challenge is the obvious lack of adequate childcare in Girdwood. This has become a significant barrier to a strong economy because an excellent service workforce has a high demand for childcare. We have not found a solution to this, but along with Little Bears, are continuing to seek support for a project to build a new childcare facility in the valley.
Expanding visitor and other activity on the Seward Highway is putting an estimated 7% annual increase of traffic on a road which is already inadequate. Girdwood Inc. is actively supporting three Highway projects including Seward and Alyeska Highway Intersection into Girdwood, improvements near the dall sheep viewing area, and the highway becoming four lanes with an adjacent bike/pedestrian path. We are pleased these projects have gained support from the Governor and Department of Transportation. There are milestones where public support will be important. These highway improvements will save many lives on Alaska’s bloodiest road, as well as reduce costly and frequent road closures. We will update you in these newsletters, including when critical public comments are needed.
A project worth highlighting is the effort to build a new suspension bridge replacing the former hand tram crossing upper Winner Creek gorge. This allows for a loop walk on a trail that has become very popular with Anchorage and outside visitors. The hand tram has now been closed for several years and was not meeting demand at the location, which often resulted in long lines and wait times. We are among those advocating for funding, estimated at about $1.2 million. The goal is that the Forest Service would be ultimately become responsible for the stewardship of the bridge.
A degree of autonomy:
To address many of these issues, we emphasize the need for more decisions and responsibility to be borne by the Girdwood community, instead of back in Anchorage. With the distance between Anchorage and Girdwood, we have many characteristics of a rural town. We have seen various examples of Anchorage municipal bodies struggling to handle unique Girdwood issues. On a state level, Girdwood’s representation is being determined by the courts. Currently, there is a pending case, where Girdwood citizen plaintiffs have joined with East Anchorage to oppose new boundaries which would group Girdwood with Eagle River. The Superior court recently ruled in the Plaintiff’s favor but is currently being appealed in the Alaska Supreme Court. If you would like to contribute toward legal fees, you may do so at: https://gofund.me/eda14009
Spotlight Local Organization: Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation
The Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation began with Girdwood Inc.’s sponsorship in 2018. It is now a stand-alone 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to helping keep Prince William Sound healthy, clean, and wild for all to enjoy. Each year they lead summer volunteer projects in the Sound, including marine debris removal, invasive species mitigation, trail, and recreation site restoration. They also coordinate citizen science opportunities, such as mussels testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Environmental stewardship, community building, and public education are at the heart of what they do. They are kicking off the summer with their annual Natural History Symposium in Whittier and online on May 23rd. For more information, to register for volunteer opportunities, attend the Natural History Symposium, or to become a member, visit www.princewilliamsound.org.
Coming up on May 29th from 11 AM – 4 PM is Girdwood Farmer Market in town square. This event will be held every other Sunday through September. Local vendors may sign up for booths at www.girdwoodfarmersmarket.com and we encourage patrons to come support local businesses and vendors.
Lastly, we hope you have been enjoying our newsletters and hope you can attend our Summer Solstice fundraiser on June 18th! Click here to purchase tickets to attend! Funds raised at this event will support future newsletters and help to keep the community informed on important issues. Until next time!