The Friends of Jesse Lee Home (FJLH) have been mystified for some years now as to motivation behind the Walker Administration’s approach to our grants for the renovation of the historic Jesse Lee Home, and the creation of the Balto Statewide Leadership Charter School which would inhabit it.
The Walker Administration never agreed to multiple requests to sit down with FJLH to discuss the project, nor apparently asked themselves why the Department of Community Commerce and Economic Development (DCCED) would be administering a grant to restore a historic property instead of the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation…the department where the grants to the project started.
It wasn’t until DCCED Deputy Commissioner Fred Parady made a statement to Alaska Public Media that the disconnect became clear, “Parady admitted the scope of the grant agreements allowed for more than just construction costs, and, to be clear, he doesn’t think anybody stole money. But Parady said the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home might have gotten off track with developing school curriculum that distracted them from the more immediate needs of the deteriorating building.”
Apparently, Parady was oblivious to the fact that the Friends of Jesse Lee Home are legally required to fully develop the end user school, which must open immediately after the renovations of the building are completed.
Qualification for the project’s federal New Market Tax Credit matching grant, 40% of the funding, is based on employment numbers of the end user. It is a non-negotiable legal requirement that after renovation the building must be placed immediately into service.
Since the New Market Tax Credit is a jobs bill, it made sense to move the grant to DCCED to create the school and the jobs that are associated with it opening. The Department of Education only oversees schools that are open.
The federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit matching grant, 20% of the funding for renovation, also demands the building be immediately placed back into service. It is a non-negotiable legal requirement of this grant as well.
The dynamic of twinning these two federal funding sources is sophisticated and complex. It has never been done before in Alaska, so no one at DCCED or DNR HP has experience with this mechanism. Nationally it is a rare pairing, less than a handful of similar projects, which demanded the FJLH traveled out-of-state to acquire the skills, knowledge, and lessons learned from experienced consultants with a record of successful completion.
The Purchase Agreement for the Jesse Lee Home from the City of Seward carries the stipulation that a public school will be the end user. Governor Sean Parnell allocated funding in his budget for the development of the school, which was passed by the legislature. This is this funding that was directed to DCCED.
Previously, the Alaska State Legislature appropriated funding to stabilize the building, which was administered through the Department of Natural Resources Department of Historic Preservation. DNR-HP does not do community and economic development, and community and economic development is what the end user – the Balto School, empowers and ignites.
The remainder of the DNR grant was transferred to DCCED so the stabilization could be maintained while the Balto School curriculum and Architecture & Engineering were developed. They are currently at 80% and could be completed in months. The stabilization was maintained as the structure dried out and was pulled back into plumb. Everything was on budget and on time….until the Walker Administration elected to stop paying the bills.
The State of Alaska’s complex legal requirements for setting up a residential boarding school; drawing students from all over the State for one semester – which skews the student count for funding and required resolution of this issue; and the rigor of development of a placed based, individualized learning, STEAM curriculum simply cannot be done turnkey in a couple weeks – it takes a couple years.
Once the school plans and A&E are finalized, actual building renovations will take a year – about the same time it will take to staff up and prepare the school for opening. The federal grants require that the Jesse Lee Home be put immediately back into service. There is no option for it to be renovated then stand unused for years while the end user school is being developed.
It is fiscally impossible for the FJLH to complete the renovation of the building without completing the development of the school at the same time. The State of Alaska did not appropriate funding for the entire renovation, only funding to match the federal grants.
Unfortunately, with the change from the Parnell Administration to the Walker Administration this was lost. Walker’s new staff at the Department of Community Commerce and Economic Development failed to realize that their job was to assist the FJLH in developing a statewide leadership charter school that would directly impact the quality of communities, commerce, and economic development. If it were just a matter of restoring a historical building, DNR would have continued their administration of the FJLH grants.
Ironically, one of the items that DCCED Deputy Commissioner Fred Parady highlighted to complain about is that the FJLH spent funds on a film festival – a prototype learning lab that brought film industry professionals, film school staff from UAF, UAA, and UAS, film trade unions, and students to Seward on their own dime for workshops, hands-on learning opportunities, and professional networking.
As a direct result of the film fest, the Hollywood feature Sugar Mountain brought Aquaman Jason Momoa to Seward to film during the dead of winter, flushing the tourist town with hundreds of thousands of dollars of fun easy cash during a time that is normally an economic lull.
The film industry has died in this state, but Alaskans have continued to receive trade union wages and benefits as they follow Director Richard Grey on his subsequent films, including a prequel to Braveheart recently filmed in Scotland. Had the State of Alaska continued its film industry incentives, Grey said he would have returned to Seward to shoot that movie as well.
Not a bad Return-On-Investment for two nights at the UAF Rae Building, considering at the same time the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and the Alaska Workforce Investment Board spent nearly half a million dollars training film industry professionals through the Alaska Crew and Cast Advancement Program.
$1.25 million was pointed at the Friends of Jesse Lee Home to preserve what is arguably one of the most important historical buildings in Alaska, and repurpose it as a wellspring of Alaska’s best and brightest prepared for the challenges of the next generations. That funding has been reappropriated to the City of Seward to demolish this structurally sound building.
Both DCCED Commissioner Mike Navarre and City of Seward Manager Jim Hunt have been made aware of the disconnect at DCCED with the purpose of the grants they were overseeing. Neither party elected to be gracious in their response.
Seward’s Jesse Lee Home has stood for something for nearly 100 years: an icon in the Alaska Native Rights Movement; the Home of the Alaska State Flag; WW2 Fort Raymond; the last remaining relic of the effort that was awarded the International Lorraine (Red) Cross for curing tuberculosis; the only known example of landbased, handcrafted, tallship marine architecture; a landmark in civil rights as the first foster home in the nation with the mandate that children would all be treated the same regardless of race, created by master craftsmen and an internationally renowned architect, for which no expense was spared to construct; a hallmark used by the Territory of Alaska to demonstrate its ability to provide social services as required for Statehood; a gathering place for frightened and weary residents after the ravages of earthquake and tidal waves because it was safe and self-sufficient.
If will still stand should the City of Seward take the building back next year remains to be seen.