The Garretts’ cross shines again on the hillside during a recent snowy afternoon, just before dusk. See story below about how the community came to defend the lighted cross.

Photo by Jeff Brady

Crossing a mountain of tradition

When Alaska Power & Telephone founder Arthur Garrett’s wife grew seriously ill in December 1960, he supposedly made a pact with God that if she were saved, then he would light a cross on the Skagway hillside.
Garrett was a religious man. His wife Marguerite lived and the cross appeared the following December, 1961. It was a fixture above the town and no one complained. It remained lit for 40 years until the company found itself near bankruptcy in 2002 and felt the surplus light may be viewed wrong by customers. Now the company admits not lighting it during recent lean years was a mistake, and this winter, after receiving many requests, AP&T decided to re-light it for the Yuletide season.
Some look at the cross as a fitting memorial, others find comfort in the religious meaning, many see it as a beacon of light shining over a little town.
But someone obviously doesn’t like the cross, or at the very least didn’t know the history and what it means to the community. An unidentified man came into the municipal offices on Nov. 30 and complained to staff about it being on public land, threatening to call in the American Civil Liberties Union. The threat wasn’t taken lightly, even though there was no formal written complaint.
Staff researched whether the cross was on public lands. It was. AP&T wrote back that it was probably on municipal property, but it was part of the company’s federal hydroelectric lease and on a company tramway. It had no intention of taking it down or “darkening” the cross, citing a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that “if a religious monument is not intended and perceived as state endorsement of religion, then it is not unconstitutional,” wrote AP&T’s Stan Selmer.
When the issue was placed on the agenda of the Dec. 13 Skagway Borough Assembly meeting, members began getting lots of calls. More calls than he had ever received on any issue, said Mayor Tom Cochran. All wanted the cross to stay lit.
At the opening of the meeting, Cochran said that because no formal written complaint was received, no action would be taken, but he welcomed public comment in case something was received and the assembly needed to consult the borough attorney.
The unnamed complainant, who apparently recently moved back to the community, never came forward, but many others did.
Barb Kalen told the story of the Garretts.
“People like me who remember this story can look up there and get a warm feeling in their hearts,” she said. “Anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t have to look up there.”
“It doesn’t offend me,” said John Harris. “I like looking up at it and what it represents,” added Buckwheat Donahue.
Debbie Ackerman said she does not view the cross as a religious symbol, more as a “light in the dark.... I’m glad to see it back.”
Floyd Matthews said newcomers to town are usually helped out, but they should respect community traditions. He said the cross on the hill was no different than the flag flying at the school, or the star symbol in the tower window of the McCabe Municipal Building.
Ken Matthews said that when he arrived as a newcomer 30 years ago, he looked up at the cross and was told its story. He said he saw a “community with heart.”
Brandon Arnold said he has known the cross since he was a kid, and grew up to realize its meaning. “Future generations should see it,” he said.
Selmer said that when McCabe was built in 1899, the Christian college placed what was known then as the “Star of Creation” in its window. “We all have rights to memorials,” he said, noting there are crosses in cemeteries, crosses on trails, and reiterating that his company “had no intention of turning the cross off.”
Originally, it was just going to be up for the Christmas season, but now, due to the outpouring of public support, it will stay lit year-round, Selmer said.
Assembly members agreed with Cochran that the municipality should take no action, but some commented on the cross.
Mike Korsmo said seeing it lit again “hit home” after his wife’s struggles with cancer. “People in town take care of people...” he said. “The cross was for a good cause.”
L.C. Cassidy said the cross is the symbol of Christianity but “means a lot of things to different people” and said she didn’t think the person who complained knew the history of it. “He should come out in the open and say why,” she said.
“The person chose not to be here,” Cochran added. “That says something.”
Attempts to contact the alleged complainant for this story were unsuccessful.

Rasmuson Foundation gives $800,000 for clinic construction
Asks for redesign, new name, tourism matches

The Rasmuson Foundation announced Dec. 11 that it was awarding the Municipality of Skagway $800,000 toward construction of its new clinic.
But in a letter to the municipality, the foundation also asked the Skagway Borough Assembly to consider three requests:
• Use a portion of the foundation funding to redesign the clinic to reduce square footage and construction costs.
• Name the new clinic for Edward A. and Jenny Rasmuson.
• Ask the travel industry in writing for a 1:10 cash contribution, or $80,000 per major cruise line or tour company.
The assembly will look at these issues at its first meeting of the new year on Jan. 10, and in a memo to members last week Borough Manager Alan Sorum said he would bring forward a resolution to change the new clinic’s name.
It has been called the Dahl Memorial Clinic since the 1960s, when the current facility was constructed with Alaska Centennial funds and named for long-time Skagway Dr. P. I. Dahl.
However, the new clinic will be located on six lots that were donated to the municipality by the Rasmuson-owned National Bank of Alaska. For many years, E. A. and Jenny Rasmuson lived in Skagway, where the bank was founded. It eventually moved its base to Anchorage and became the state’s largest financial institution under son Elmer and grandson Ed. The family’s sale of NBA to Wells Fargo early in this decade “provided the assets that make up a large component of the Rasmuson Foundation assets,” wrote the foundation’s program officer, Joel Neimeyer.
The high square footage cost of the proposed clinic – now expected to cost $7.84 million – was a concern of the foundation and other grant agency representatives who met here during the Southeast Conference in September, but Neimeyer said pre-development program experts later found those costs to be appropriate. They recommended, however, that the municipality look at reducing the number of examination rooms to save up to $750,000 in construction costs, and offered a suggested floor plan.
He said the foundation acknowledges that a re-design could delay the project’s going out to bid in March 2008, which could result in higher bids. The foundation still asked the assembly to take a “second look,” but noted that a redesign “is not a requirement to receive the grant.”
Its third recommendation was a challenge to tourism industry companies to pitch in.
“The foundation believes that those who benefit from a proposed project should also participate in the funding of the project,” Neimeyer wrote. “I can tell you that the board is favorably impressed the municipality elected to bond a significant portion of the proposed clinic costs. The board also noticed a lack of financial support for the proposed clinic by the travel and tourism industry. When we see that the clinic is oversized for six months out of the year, when tourists are not in Skagway, we have to ask why isn’t this sector also contributing to the project.”
Mayor Tom Cochran said the grant award, despite the attached requests, was “overall good news” and credited the community for backing up to $5 million in general obligation bonds in October’s election. “That’s what a lot of funding agencies look at,” he said.
Clinic Board President John Warder said he will re-schedule the board’s next meeting to early in January so it can make a recommendation to the assembly.
Warder said he personally did not support any design change.
“When you are this late in the design, and go back to modify the design, you are not going to realize substantial savings, and in fact it will cost more,” Warder said.
All nine exam rooms in the design will be used on busy summer days, but he said if rooms aren’t being used, they can be converted for office or storage. “We were tasked with looking 40 years in advance,” he said.
As for changing the name, “Who better to name it after one of the Rasmusons?” he asked “....The Rasmusons have always supported Skagway. I feel real good about the name change.”
He added that asking the cruise lines to chip in was a “no brainer.”

‘Affordable to whom?’
Housing issue needs more input, town hall meeting set

For a young couple in their mid-20s looking to purchase their first home, Skagway may not present the most viable option. Locally, the price of a home has skyrocketed over the last few years as demand for housing has increased, mostly due to the growth of the cruise ship industry. As the municipality seeks to promote year-round business, the issue of affordable housing, and how the term is defined, has become a subject of concern.
At the Dec. 10, Civic Affairs Committee meeting, Chairperson L.C. Cassidy proposed a series of questions as a starting point to tackling the issue. The first question sought to garner opinions on what constitutes “affordable housing.”
Borough Manager Alan Sorum then asked, “Affordable to whom?” He elaborated by saying different households with different incomes could have totally different notions about what is affordable.
“In my opinion it is a couple in their mid-20s getting, and affording, housing,” said Mayor Tom Cochran. “We don’t have it right now.”
Cochran said the core problem was the lack of flat land available in the valley, and suggested the borough look into a possible land swap with owners of vacant lots and property north of the railroad shops.
Assemblyman Dave Hunz said many lots were vacant because owners were paying very little in property tax, and were choosing to pass along their lots to family because the mil rate was so low.
Cassidy said what makes people want to establish permanent residence in Skagway is the prospect of a diversified, healthy year-round economy.
Cochran said the borough is in the early stages of making that prospect a reality with planned expansion of the ore terminal, and the prospect of more winter jobs.
Cassidy and Sorum suggested implementing a mechanism to encourage the development of unused property, such as tax incentives for building apartments or condominiums which could be sold as “starter homes.” Cochran said he saw no reason why a builder couldn’t receive some sort of tax break under such a scenario.
Cassidy asked if land in the Dyea area, which will soon go up for sale, could be considered an option for building, and if it could be considered “affordable.” However, with no firm idea on the future cost of the lots, all in attendance were at a loss to answer definitively.
Cassidy expressed disappointment there were not more in attendance to address the issue. Cochran suggested a town meeting could be held where the public could address the issue as they saw fit.
“No rules, no limits, just shoot it out there,” he said.
It is hoped the town meeting, scheduled for Jan. 11, will motivate more response and stimulate ideas for making housing more affordable for those interested in maintaining a year-round residence in Skagway.

Blaine Mero honored for community service

photo courtesy of Sharon Sherk

Blaine Mero is the winner of the 2007 Helen B. Clark Award for Skagway Community Service.
Publisher Jeff Brady announced the award at the Yuletide Ball, reading from the nominating statement:
“This vibrant member of our community is a coach, teacher, counselor, director, master of ceremonies, and friend to many. The entertainment, time, and energy he has put into our Fourth of July as MC, on the HDC, and, most of all, the plays at the school, are immeasurable. He spends countless hours reading scripts, auditioning kids and adults for roles, directing, and counseling the children on their parts, and in their lives. He not only does a great job with the production of the plays, he positively touches the lives of his students and audience. We are lucky to have him in our community, and all of us are lucky to call him a friend. The committee would like to add that his Barbra Streisand renditions are fabulous.”
Several conspiring friends were able to get Mero, who had been sick with the winter crud, to come to the ball. He was totally taken by surprise with the announcement and the cheering crowd. “I’m speechless,” he said. “Thank you.”
A committee of past winners made the selection. In addition, the committee honored Skagway Fire Lieutenant Tom Lux for his many volunteer hours with SFD and the Elks.


ANIMAL ACTS – Skagway School kid trainers and wild critters perform hula-hoop stunts during the “Christmas Under the Big Top” program. See more Yuletide performers in the Yule Photos links below.

Photo by Andrew Cremata

Click to see 2007 Yuletide Photos & Events

• SCHOOL ACTIVITIES:Thomas Etue earns second trip to State wrestling meet; Volleyball team spirit shows with wins at State tourney; Boyd Worley Jr. High Tourney results & boxscores

• DEC. OBITUARIES: Gerald Revis, Ted Tidwell

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