Alaska City on the Move: WASILLA!

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The new Wasilla Sonic restaurant is located in the Sun Mountain development. It did $500,000 worth of business in its first three days.

With 11 months before Mayor Bert Cottle is termed out of office, he is talking to groups throughout the Matanuska-Susitna area about what has been happening in Wasilla with emphasis on a “bucket list” of what he wants to accomplish before leaving city hall.

From road improvements and an expanded airport, a vital new library activity center, upgrades to the Menard Center including a park, collaboration with the Alaska Railroad, a new police department and a glorious veteran’s wall, Mayor Cottle presemts a Power Point and entertaining commentary to describe his vision and what has happened.

Economic development is a highlight.

“The Mat-Su Borough has an inventory tax; every year you have to do an inventory reporting of what is on your property if you are a commercial business,” explained Cottle in a presentation to the Susitna Rotary on October 23. “This last year that amounted to $85 million. The City of Wasilla has 68% of all the inventory in the borough, which is up 2% of what it was last year. That’s our niche. Our 14 square miles is commercial; this is where you are going to go shopping. We are not recreational, not tourism, not government services. We’re the shopping district.”

Whether located in the city of Wasilla, or just doing business in the city, a business license is required. It cost $25. This year Wasilla issued over 2,500 licenses, of which 350 are new businesses.

“So my goal, if you are doing business in Wasilla, is for you to make a lot of money,” Cottle continued. “If you don’t make money I don’t make money. When Sonic came in, they did over half a million dollars in the first three days. I get my three cents on the dollar and that’s a good thing. I get my $15,000 and you get half a million! I am fine with that.”

Plenty more is coming. McDonald’s just re-modeled and expanded, Fred Meyer is going to have a new gas station at Sun Mountain, Matanuska Telephone Association will also build there and two new apartment buildings are going up. A major hotel chain also has interest in the site.

“Yeah, we’re going to have lots of jobs,” he adds.

Riley and Roberts Streets have had substantial work during this construction season. Riley has been cut through from near the Senior Center to Endeavor Street. It will relieve traffic from six ballparks, coming out by the Iditarod Headquarters. Roberts is the road behind Home Depot that provides access for a new proposed development at the gravel pit across the Parks Highway from Wasilla Lake.

“Where the train depot is located now, (at the corner of KGB and Parks Highway) we have never owned that building until a couple of years ago,” explained Cottle. “It hasn’t been used as a train depot since the 1950s or 60s, and the Chamber of Commerce has rented it from the Alaska Railroad for a dollar. Now we do that with the Chamber.”

Roberts Street provides access from behind Home Depot to the Gravel Pit where the Train Depot will be relocated.

Wasilla
owns 11 acres across from the Wasilla Lake park next to the condos at the
gravel pit. Next summer the train depot—it is historic and has value—will be
moved down to a spot in what is now a gravel pit. Cottle says it’s going to
take a couple of years, but the plan is for a train platform. Some 2,000 people
get on and off the train in Wasilla now. Alaska Railroad won’t continue to stop
in a place that blocks KGB, and he doesn’t want to lose the train stop.

The historic train depot will be moved next summer.

Click to read about the best thing about Los Anchorage

“Someday
we will have the right politics in place to hopefully establish a commuter
train that will run from that terminal,” he continued. “In November, when we
had the earthquake, and when the truck damaged the Eagle River overpass, we had
800 school teachers in the valley who could not make it to Anchorage, so they
had to shut down some schools. I told them: ‘Now is the time to try it–run
that train!’”

The
Mayor is critical of Alaska Railroad officials, who he admits “don’t send me
many Christmas cards.”

“They
said: ‘No, we would have to pay overtime. We don’t have the crew. They had
excuses.’  Then not too long after that I
saw a train go by full of people—a passenger train—and I called them back and
said ‘Hey, somebody hijacked your train and it is going through Wasilla full of
people! They said ‘No that’s the ski train.’ I told them we needed to
make that train available to thousands of people as commuters, who need to get
back and forth to Anchorage, and they still refused to consider it.”

The 11
acre city site is going to be developed into an historic area with classic
buildings, antique handcarts, adequate parking and a road that comes out by the
clothing store.

Wasilla Airport is being expanded to provide more tie downs and parking for events like the Wings over Wasilla annual airshow 

Improvements
have also been made to the Airport: “We just finished up a $3.9 million grant
from the feds. We added two future rental lots and now we have 26. All 26 are
filled. We have 27 new tie downs and they will all be booked, but we have a
wait list, so anybody in the old section got first chance in the new section
and we now have a total of 155 tie downs. We were also able to purchase an
additional 70 acres so we have a total of 504 acres there. We worked out an
arrangement with the truck driving school NIT to let them practice there and we
are going to turn it into a big new parking lot. When we host the Wings Over
Wasilla, called WOW, we will have shuttles back and forth creating more room
and more parking.”

About
3,000 people turn up for the WOW air show this year and next year the military
has promised a fly-over, according to Cottle. As this event continues to grow
it will require more parking.

Wasilla Library and activity center.

Another
success story, the Library: “It has been open a couple of years now, we have
about 115,000 to 120,000 people going to that library each year,” Cottle said.
“The library has developed into an activity center. There is the library part
and there is the entryway which has two additional rental rooms. We charge $25
for the small room and $35 for the big room. We have learned that if we don’t
charge some kind of fee some people will abuse the system.”

The
old library had 16 parking spots. The borough provided four acres to build the
library and an additional acre is being leased. “We started developing it this
year and discovered there is a sinkhole there, so next year we will put another
30 spots in there,“ he explained. The old library is going to be re-purposed
into a new museum with completion date set for June 1, 2020.

The
Menard Center and nearby acreage owned by the city is also being enriched to
encourage usage.

“We
took our portion of the recreational bonds passed a couple of years ago and
built a one-mile ADA Accessible paved trail around the Menard Center and it is
complete. I see people out there with walkers!” Cottle enthused.

The
historic theme will continue on city land owned near the Menard Center.

“Anybody
who has been around here any time will remember the old Tryck Nyman Hayes
engineering company; the Tryck family built a house here in the 1930s or 40s.
They donated it to us and said ‘we like what you are doing to restore this area
so we will give you the house so you can restore or move it.’ The number for
restoring it came in at $70,000 but eventually I would like to see an AlaskaLand
or Pioneer Park-like place there, with 5-6 of the old houses. Other
houses have been donated including the Territorial School. It is down there on
the other side of the tracks and when MEA wants to put in some new power lines
we want to go in and move that building) out.”

Wasilla
has nine city parks–more than anybody–but no playground on that end of town. So,
on 60 acres owned on the second driveway by the Menard Center, Cottle intends
to install a $70,000 playground set which is on its way. It will be installed
by next summer. Trailhead parking, bathrooms, picnic tables, will all be fenced
in on one acre.

One of two ARR flatbed cars to be refurbished for use by the City of Wasilla.

“If
you have been out there recently you might have seen I got the Alaska Railroad
to give us a couple of old beat up train flat cars,” said Cottle. If you went
to the Mayor’s Picnic on July 4 you probably saw the one flat car, they were
pretty beat up when we got it and we stripped the paint, repainted and redocked
it. You can’t hurt them, and anyway they gave me two so we’re going to do the
same thing to the second one, and we recently got the Clapp Street lighting for
the Trailhead and two driveways done out there.

We
also built a storage shed to replace a Conex. When we built these facilities–like
the Menard Center–we agreed that leftover money should go into structures
rather than wages or trips or anything like that. So we had enough money left
over after we built that building some 12-13 years ago to build a storage shed.
We needed a storage shed because if we can get the storage out of the Menard
Center we can be rent that space.

In
recent years a lot of Alaskans have become concerned about crime, wondering
what our elected officials are doing about it. Cottle is a former policeman and
his emphasis is clear.

The Wasilla Police Department will become an Emergency Services Command  Center.

“We
are big believers in forward-funding the police department and we save nearly
$3 million in interest and bonds that don’t get passed on to the voters and our
kids and grandkinds. We’re going to cut that out early because we have raised
the money by December 1st instead of December 31st of
this year, and we’re going to have the opening in July. Now it is $1-1/2
Million and the construction company is going to be out of there early so we
should be able to move in there early,” he said.

The
police department will move into a new new location at the site of the old
Iditarod School but dispatch stays upstairs in the current building.

“I
can’t afford to move all that communication equipment. Right now it’s about
10,000 square feet–5,000 upstairs and 5,000 down–and we have the second
largest dispatch center in the state. We have 35 people working there, five
people minimum on 24-hours per day. We answer the phone 800 times per day;
dispatch for Alaska State Troopers, Mat-Su Fire, Mat-Su EMS, Houston Fire,
Chickaloon Police Department, and some work for the feds.”

Downstairs
is going to be Mat-Su Borough Emergency Services, run by Casey Cook. That will
be their command center. In the next earthquake, fire or flood everybody will
be in the same building.

The new Wasilla Police station is under construction and expected to be completed ahead of schedule.

Finally,
Cottle explained what the City has been doing at the relocated Veteran’s Wall
of Honor.

“I
don’t want to say what happened to get to this point but we stood up and said We’ll
fix it,”
he said. “By the time we are done fixing it we are going to have a
million dollars into it.”

The
city of Wasilla gave the Veteran organization nine-tenths of an acre for the
wall in front of where the old Iditarod School was located. Phase I was done
last year, including moving the original 7 panels from the old location to the
new location. Phase 2, this year included putting up 6 new panels, providing
space for an additional 2,000 names. The concrete was set the third week of
October providing room for an additional row or two of panels. Six large
insignias, one for each of the branches of military, are in route. What the City
of Wasilla agreed to was “we will pay for electricity, we will make sure it is
maintained, through AMVETS or American Legion. We’re working on a $250,000
grant from the Rasmuson Foundation and I think there are 8 pillars up now. Next
summer we hope to put up a pavilion. I guarantee it will look nice; I’ve got 10
family members on that wall.”

An
important part of Mayor Cottle’s political philosophy is a belief in
private/public partnerships. He demonstrated how he applied such a partnership
to moderate impact of what has been called the “bag ban” on plastic bags.

“For
anybody who followed it, that wasn’t about banning plastic bags, that was about
taxing every commercial business ten cents per bag,” he explained. “Income came
to about $2.1-2.2 million in revenues the borough would collect. Wasilla
businesses were about $1.8 million of that. So, I went to the Borough and
asked: ‘how much of that do I get?’ They said ‘you don’t get anything!’ You’re
going to get $1.8 million from Wasilla businesses? I’m not going to get any
money back even for the 7-8 kids I hire every summer to go out and pick up
garbage, or anything?

“So we
just banned plastic bags outright so they couldn’t tax us.

“I
went to the schools that year–because we contribute to the schools–and I told
them: ‘I’m going to tell you how to triple the money I give you!’ We partnered
with the schools to come out with reusable plastic bags, with the city logo on
one side and the Wasilla Warriors on the other side designed by the kids. They
sold them for $5 each and tripled their money. Since then other high schools
have seen this and are doing it all across the state as a fundraiser.”

Wasilla
is a city on the move and within a year someone else will take over.

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