Darren ‘HarpDaddy’ Smith playing in front of the 4th Avenue Theater alongside guitarist Leo Ash.

By Darren “HarpDaddy” Smith

I get to the Loussac a few hours early for the Anchorage Assembly meeting this Tuesday. I grab a cup of coffee, dig in and start writing a story about the history of the 4th Avenue Theatre and our historical and emotional attachments to it; the vision and execution of Cap Lathrop, commissioning B. Marcus Priteca, the preeminent movie theater architect during the Golden Age of Cinema; the murals created by Dutch muralist A.B. Heinsbergen and his protégé, Frank Bouman. I’m about halfway into it and feeling pretty damn good about it, when I see folks start to file into the Assembly Chambers. So I close up shop and head into the Chamber to grab a good seat.

Assembly Members Gretchen Wehmhoff and Suzanne LaFrance submitted a resolution to recommend and urge the Mayor, the State of Alaska, and the property owner to act to protect and preserve the historic values of the 4th Avenue Theatre. The resolution was brought forth to facilitate and initiate communication between the Friends of 4th Avenue Theatre, the Municipality of Anchorage, and Peach Investments, LLC the owners of the property.

Well, I think it may have worked, but probably not in the way that they hoped it would.

I had to reconnoiter and switch gears due to a little spark of fireworks at the Assembly meeting; a spark that I believe could be the first bit of progress in a while towards coming up with a solution that can best benefit all stakeholders. There are examples, throughout the nation, of creative ways that communities have come together to meld the old and the new. Our biggest hurdle has been the lack of communication.

When the debate kicked off, Assemblyman Dick Traini was quick to attempt to cut through the emotional ties to the theatre stating,

“This thing (resolution) needs to be killed off. We dealt with this in 2006. We sent it to the voters and the voters voted against saving this theatre. The vote was 58.7 percent against it, 41.39 percent to try and save it. That was $2,000,000 and the voters said no,” Traini said. “The city had its chance to buy that piece of property and didn’t… I don’t want us now to tell the owner of it, well you can own it, but not quite. We want to put some restrictions on what you do.”

Damnit, I didn’t want to agree, but Traini’s right on this one — the Anchorage people are vastly accountable for the current predicament by voting down Proposition 6 in 2006. The Anchorage voters soundly defeated it due to an estimated tax increase of a whopping 65 cents per $100,000 of assessed property values. Read that again… No folks, that’s not a typo... 65 cents.

But it was when Assembly Member Wehmhoff asked for David Levy, President of the Friends of the 4th Avenue Theatre, to come answer questions that things really got interesting. When asked what was the focus of the group, Levy responded, “We’re looking to work in partnership with the owners and stakeholders and the community as a whole, to preserve this Anchorage landmark. We’re not asking for government money; we understand it is in private ownership and we recognize that there have been creative ways throughout the country to preserve our history. Our client is that building.”

The Friends of the 4th Avenue are currently seeking non-profit status.

Assembly Member Traini retorted, “this same group has come together every time the concept of the theatre comes up, but nobody has the money, except for the people that bought the property when it was for sale… it’s a touchstone for many of you, but reality is that the theatre has lived out its life expectancy. It’s now up to the owners to do what they want to do with it. Not for this body to step in and mediate.”

Long-time Assembly Member Pete Petersen, then reiterated that when the owner, Mr Fang last presented his development plan over 4 years ago, he said that he would work with the Alaska Historical Society to save as much of the heritage of that building as possible.

It was then that Tim Potter, representing Peach Investments and the (Fang/Chang) family, stood up to address the chairman, knowing that he would not be recognized, but he continued on with conviction, stating that “it’s (only) appropriate for the government to actually reach out to the owner or it’s representative of the owner’s property.” Assembly Chair Eric Croft quickly dismissed Mr. Potter, curtly telling him to sit down.

A few minutes later, Assembly Member Chris Constant questioned “the process by which an Assembly member can invite a member of the public to speak and then the representative from another party, who was not even notified that it was on the agenda, is told to sit down and shut up. It’s really bad government.”

Assemblyman Traini then, per proper protocol, invited Mr. Potter up to the podium. Traini inquired as to whether the owner had been approached. Mr. Potter then expressed his frustration that the property owners were not contacted by the makers of this legislation, stating that he had not found out about it until last Friday evening. That was only after chasing down a rumor, he said. “Not good government, not good process,” Potter said.

Potter continued and reemphasized Peach Investments’ commitment: “Our intent is to try to preserve as much as we can.” He then reiterated the need for a working committee report to the Economic Development and Land Use Committee.

Assembly Member Wehmhoff then retracted any need for additional discussion at the April 9th Meeting and the resolution was postponed indefinitely, seeimingly a death knell for the Friends of the 4th Avenue Theatre’s efforts to get municipal involvement to help preserve the theater.

But not so fast...

I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a few years now — and the more that I witness, the more I am convinced that it is simply more convenient for the state and municipal governments and the general public to point fingers at the owners, Peach Investments, LLC and the Fang/Chang family as to the reason why the 4th can’t be preserved.

It happened again Tuesday night. It is mind-boggling to think that Anchorage Assembly should take place without adequate representation from all interested stakeholders, especially the owner. Especially, after all I keep hearing is that the owners are the one’s being quiet. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mr. Potter heading for the back exit, so I throw my gear in my bag and head out after him. I want to hear what Peach has to say.

I catch up with Tim and I first introduce myself as a local musician and then secondly as a freelance journalist, with an emphasis and a passion for helping to foster the preservation of what remains of the 4th Avenue Theatre. Shortly after the friendly introductions, David Levy approaches and he and Tim get into a terse, yet productive conversation about communication and expectations; timeframes and priorities. Mr. Potter went on to describe significant damage within the Theatre, including “a fracture in one of the sidewalls due to the (Nov. 30) earthquake.” He went on to mention that “the best hope that that building and the history it has rests with the Fangs. There is nobody in the state that has done what they have done,” referring to the historical restoration of the 1 Kearny Street in San Francisco.

If I understand it correctly, it costs Peach approximately $350,000 to keep the building heated and maintained annually. They have also put a new roof on preventing further extensive water damage.

This Theatre provokes emotion. A lot of first dates, first kisses, proms, and weddings happened in its hallowed walls. The Theatre has always meant a lot to the people of Alaska. This Theatre was Cap Lathrop announcing to the world that Anchorage was a first-class city and we’re here to stay. Others put their trust in Lathrop’s vision and invested in Anchorage because of it.

What strikes me about the conversation that was going down in front of me is the realization and confirmation that we all are truly on the same side here — all very passionate about this topic. The Venn Diagram of overlapping interests show a whole lot more in common than what divides us. It only makes sense to get all interested parties together for consultative dialogue, in hopes of creating something magical, yet sustainable. It is in our best interest to support open communication and I strongly hope that tonight’s fireworks have ignited the flame toward reclaiming what can be preserved and hopefully rekindle and revitalize an ailing downtown Anchorage.

Mr. Levy had to run and the topic bounces to the potential for a live performance venue(s). Mr. Potter was very open and inquisitive about what the community would need in a new venue(s). What venues are currently downtown and are they working? How big should it be? How intimate? Multiple venues?

I look forward to this leading to further discussion, and I’ll tell ya all about it...

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