Anchorage mayoral hopefuls offer different visions on how to help the city recover

the corner of the City Hall building
Anchorage City Hall on Dec. 8, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

When the next Anchorage mayor takes office in July, there will be one big issue waiting for them to tackle: Pandemic recovery. Businesses have shut down or are scraping by, and many residents are struggling to hold on to housing. In the mayor’s race, six leading candidates are offering competing plans for recovery.

Come summer, several candidates for Anchorage mayor are hoping the city’s COVID-19 situation will be greatly improved. 

“We still need to be cautious, but I am optimistic that we will be much further down the road towards a full reopening,” said East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.

“So that we can be focusing on, you know, recovery, instead of protections at that point,” said former South Anchorage and Girdwood Assembly member Bill Evans.

Like many mayoral candidates, both Dunbar and Evans say economic growth is central to their plans to lead the city out of more than a year of a pandemic that cost many people their loved ones, jobs and economic stability. 

In January, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation reported the lowest level of local economic confidence in their survey’s history. The city will have to add more than 18,000 jobs to return to pre-pandemic levels, which AEDC estimates could take years.

Candidate George Martinez, a former special assistant to Mayor Berkowitz, is focused on economic development and youth development. He said the hole the city is in now existed long before the pandemic.

“The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation gives us data that suggests that we’ve been on an economic downward spiral, losing population, losing jobs, shifting nature of work for several years now,” he said.

Each of the six candidates currently leading the race in fundraising have different ideas to pull Anchorage out of that downward spiral. Some, like Dunbar and former city manager Bill Falsey, who have been deeply involved in the city’s pandemic response, say they want to build on the work the Assembly and Mayor’s office have done over the past year.

With more federal aid expected, Dunbar said one area he wants to improve is deploying relief money more efficiently. 

“I’m hoping this next round, because we already have a lot of those processes in place, we can get it into people’s hands much faster,” he sid.

Falsey, who also helped coordinate the city’s response to the 2018 earthquake, said he wants to make sure the city communicates better about response measures, to avoid some of the confusion and backlash.

“It’s not as much about just communicating what the decision is … but why you’re doing it and what the alternative options that were considered were,” he said. “And that’s not only for legitimacy, and for confidence, but also for error checking.”

Other candidates are hoping to veer further from the current pandemic response. Evans said public health restrictions should be re-evaluated. 

“Make sure they’re narrowly tailored to both meet the public health needs, but also allow businesses to survive and jobs to last, and people to remain in a position where they can support their families.”

Martinez said there hasn’t been enough focus on addressing economic, health and education equity gaps during the pandemic.

“To me, the priority is … you stop the bottom from falling out. People who need that help early on, you focus your education resources, you focus the outreach resources on where those equity gaps are.”

Candidate Mike Robbins, an Anchorage businessman, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story. He has largely opposed the Assembly’s pandemic response and has a plan to reopen businesses.

Former Air Force and commercial pilot Dave Bronson also declined a phone interview. He has advocated for rolling back restrictions, and says he plans to establish new tax incentives to increase business development.

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