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Should Seward's crumbling, grand old Jesse Lee Home orphanage be saved?

Victoria BarberAlaska Newspapers Inc.
Courtesy One Shot Photography

SEWARD -- Sitting on a hill overlooking Resurrection Bay is a grand, hulking building, an abandoned orphanage with dark, empty windows. It’s creepy on the kind of grand scale that wouldn’t look out of place on a movie set, but this is no Hollywood haunted house. It is, of course, the old Jesse Lee Home.

To some, the Jesse Lee Home is a historic gem -- one of few structural landmarks in our young state and a cradle of equal rights in Alaska. To others, it’s an asbestos-filled blight just waiting to collapse on top of a thrill-seeking teen. But everyone agrees that something should be done.

The building has become a big point of contention in a small town, whose memory goes back even farther than the Jesse Lee Home’s 86-year history. And with other Seward projects and the Jesse Lee Home both banking on financial support from the State of Alaska, that small-town dispute has flared into a full-scale battle.

Place of refuge

The Jesse Lee Home was an orphanage founded by the United Methodist Church. It was originally operated in Unalaska, but relocated to a new building in Seward in 1926. During its life, the Home was a refuge for children from throughout the state, a time when many were orphaned by the influenza pandemic and tuberculosis. Most of the children at the Jesse Lee Home were Alaska Native, many from the Seward Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.

What's won the building a spot on the National Register of Historic Places is the work of one of those children -- a 13-year-old Native boy from Chignik named John Ben Benson Jr., or Benny Benson.

It’s a story that every student in Alaska learns. In 1926, more than 30 years before statehood, the American Legion sponsored a competition among schoolchildren to design a flag for the territory. Benson sketched eight yellow stars on a blue field -- the Big Dipper constellation and the North Star. The Alaska Legislature, praising the design for "its simplicity, its originality and its symbolism,” named it the winner in spring 1927. On July 9, the Alaska flag was raised for the first time on the grounds of the Jesse Lee Home, a day now celebrated as Flag Day.

The fact that a Native boy created such an important piece of Alaska’s identity was hailed as a victory for all Alaska Natives. It was, after all, only four years after Alaska Natives received citizenship and the right to vote -- and racial discrimination was rampant and widely tolerated. Even 20 years later, Elizabeth Peratrovich would stand before the State Legislature to assert that Native children shouldn’t be turned away from a movie theater, or read signs emblazoned with “No dogs or Natives allowed” in shop windows.

From blight to boarding school

The Jesse Lee Home continued to as an orphanage nearly 40 years after that first flag was raised. It’s a large complex -- two buildings of up to three stories connected by arcades. It was shut down in 1964, after the Good Friday Earthquake damaged it.

Jesse Lee Home used to sit on a 100-acre campus, which included land for gardens and livestock. Soon after the earthquake, the property was deeded to the city of Seward. It was eventually sold to a private owner, but after several years it reverted back to the city. Over time, most of the land was sold off. Today, just the building and less than 3 acres remain, an abandoned wreck in a residential subdivision.

In the 48 years since the orphanage closed there have been different uses proposed for it -- a hotel, senior center, and community center among them. But all these schemes were abandoned. The building is so deteriorated that even the most civic-minded developer turned away.

The windows of the Jesse Lee Home are all gone, leaving the interior exposed to the driving rain of Seward’s sodden climate. Much of the wood has deteriorated, leading to the partial collapse of roofs, floors and walls. The building has been gutted and is believed to contain asbestos. It’s proven a powerful attraction for local youth, with graffiti renderings marking their visits over the years.

Margaret Anderson has lived in Seward her whole life, growing up alongside some of the children who lived at Jesse Lee. She remembers the home being a somewhat utilitarian building that “wasn’t happy place for a lot of people, though it certainly served a good purpose.”

Today, she said, “It’s been vandalized and it’s a public nuisance; it’s a disgrace.”

No one in the Seward, it seemed, could repair the building, yet allowing it to rot on the hill wasn’t a good option either. The alternative -- to raze it to the ground and sell off the land -- was also unpalatable.

At an impasse, Seward approached its legislators, hoping that the state would take the landmark. In 2001, Rep. Ken Lancaster introduced House Bill 96, “An Act relating to acquisition and development of the Jesse Lee Home.” The bill’s intent: “If practical, the Jesse Lee Home and the real property on which it is located, be preserved and managed in a manner that recognizes its place in the state's history” as determined by the Department of Natural Resources.

A group formed to advocate on behalf of the Home a dozen years ago is called the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home. In addition to people from Seward, the Friends (now a non-profit) include some powerful allies from state agencies, Native corporations and the Legislature. Former State Senator Arliss Sturgulewski, former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, Stephanie Miller of Alaska Children Services, and Margie Brown, president of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council are a few.

The Friends want to restore the building, acting as a kind of conduit between the community, Jesse Lee Home and the State of Alaska.

The plan is that once the Jesse Lee Home is renovated it will become a “magnet” school for students. The concept is similar to that of the Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka. The Friends’ website states they hope to have the school up and running by 2014.

So far, the group has received $3 million from the State of Alaska. That money was in large part released to stabilize the structure. In Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget, $5 million has been set aside for the Home. The cost of the entire project -- both restoration and setting up the school -- is estimated at $16.9 million.

Plan or pipe dream?

Seward achieved its goal of making the Jesse Lee Home a state issue. However, while the project has gained support across Alaska, it’s having a harder time winning fans at home.

Not everyone in Seward agrees that the Friends’ vision for the school can, or should, be accomplished. One of those is Seward resident and former city council member Steve Schafer.

“You don’t have a campus anymore, to try to turn it into a whole school, it’s crazy,” said Schafer. “[The Friends] have got this glorious idea that they’re promoting of doing this fairytale project, but is it necessary and can we afford it? Why are we putting money into something like this, when there are other schools available?”

Schafer’s background is in construction and property development. He believes renovating the building will be more expensive than the Friends assume. A 2011 structural assessment report, performed by the firm Schneider and Associates, paints too rosy a picture of the building’s prospects, he said.

Schafer pointed to another study by the firm Franklin and Associates in 1999. Dale Lindsey, who was president of Petro Marine Services, commissioned the study to see if something could be made of the building. In addition to wood rotting from leaks, cracked stucco on the exterior, and other issues, the report noted that the foundation had untreated sill plates that were rotting. That's very difficult and expensive to fix, Schafer said.

In addition, the shrunken campus has less room for classrooms and no space for parking.

“If you want to do something … put up a little commemorative building, or a museum,” Schafer said.

Dorene Lorenz, chairman of the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, seemed unsurprised to hear about the local skepticism regarding the project.

“There’s a saying that even Jesus wasn’t a hero in Nazereth. Most people in Seward have only known (the Home) as a decrepit building,” said Lorenz.

Lorenz is certainly familiar with the town’s political landscape. She grew up between Seward and Anchorage and served a term on the Seward City Council alongside Schafer. Lorenz described saving the Home as a kind of life mission. Her grandmother was friends with some of the staff and wished for it to be restored. In fact, her grandmother felt so strongly about it, Lorenz said, she sent Lorenz away from her hospital death bed so that Lorenz could vote on a Jesse Lee Home resolution before Seward's City Council.

“She was holding my hand right before she passed and she made me promise that I would do all that was in my power, and not quit, until it was restored,” Lorenz said, audibly choking on tears. “I will spend the rest of the my life fulfilling that promise.”

Lorenz said that, similar to Mt. Edgecumbe, students wouldn’t be allowed to drive cars so parking wouldn't be an issue. But she acknowledged that some classes would have to be held elsewhere in the community. “It will be a mix,” she said.

Cost of doing non-profit business

Several months ago, Schafer filed a Freedom of Information Act request on the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home. Receipts filed with the City of Seward -- to be reimbursed by the state -- have raised some eyebrows, and fueled speculation that the project is a boondoggle.

The Friends of the Jesse Lee Home don’t have regular staff, but hire contractors (Lorenz said she and other board members are unpaid volunteers). The primary contractor is project manager Kirsten Vesel, a former Seward assistant city manager. Vesel is tasked with overseeing both the renovation of the Jesse Lee Home and the launch of the proposed school.

Vesel bills $100 per hour through her company, Grassroots Consulting. Back in October, Vesel gave the city a bill for $20,000 for a month of work. Invoices for Grassroots Consulting filed over five months, between July and November 2011, add up to more than $80,000.

The Friends rent an office on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage for $550 a month. Lorenz characterized it in an email as a very small space, used mostly for storing supplies, records and equipment, and for its access to conference rooms. Receipts show over $30,000 in office-related expenses. That includes furnishings, office supplies, and high-end computer equipment.

“Obviously you can’t take all the documents that are associated with this project and keep them in the basements and cupboards of volunteers. You can’t push it onto a consultant. We have our own equipment and storage,” Lorenz said.

The Friends have also engaged the services of a photojournalist who billed $37,500 by December, creating informational videos on the project, documenting the structure and interviewing people who lived in the Home.

Receipts were reimbursed for travel to Juneau, raising concern that state funds were being used to lobby the state, which is illegal. However, Lorenz said trips to Juneau were related to aspects of the project’s development, in particular its educational planning. Lobbying was not a part of the travel, she said.

That’s unlikely to allay all the concerns about the Friends’ spending. A FOIA request for the Friends’ financials records since December has already been filed.

“There’s no oversight on this. Where is the government oversight on this spending?” Schafer said.

Who’s afraid of Jesse Lee?

Seward residents might shake their heads in disapproval of the how the Friends spend state money, but what gets people really fired up is fear that the Jesse Lee will endanger other local projects.

In particular, Seward is protective of the effort to relocate the Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of the Community Development Quota groups created under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Coastal Villages has identified Seward as the site of a potential Alaska home port. If the fleet of more than  22 vessels were relocated to Seward it’s expected to transform the economic landscape of the town, creating a new tax base and hundreds of jobs. But first, Seward must build the infrastructure for a deep-water port at a cost of up to $50 million.

What concerns many members of council is that when the City goes to the legislature for help with projects like the port, those funding requests will be in competition with Jesse Lee -- even though the Jesse Lee Home is a state project.

That’s why it’s become important to a lot of Seward residents to keep the Jesse Lee Home endeavor separate from the city -- in the minds of legislators and everyone else.

“There are a limited amount of funds that can be distributed and granted to communities. Despite the fact that they are separate, I don’t think people in Juneau and the state are completely enlightened to the relationship -- or lack thereof -- between the Jesse Lee Home and the city and the state,” said City Manager Jim Hunt.

Lorenz said that the perception that it’s Jesse Lee against Coastal Villages, or any other local project, presents “a false choice.”

“People can say that in Seward as much as they want to, but the reality is that it’s empirically not true,” Lorenz said. “Every single year they think if they fund Jesse Lee they won’t fund (another project). This is just the flavor of the day. This year it’s Coastal Villages, last year it was the library museum.”

Regardless, the city, state and Friends of Jesse Lee have become uncomfortable bedfellows when it comes to the historic building.

The Jesse Lee Home will always be strongly associated with Seward, though its renovation is a state project. Seward still owns the property, but it’s being worked on by the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home. And while the Friends are getting their funding from the state, the money travels through the city of Seward. The state has responsibility for the project, but the city is responsible for the property.

Confused?

Difference without a distinction

The tense relationship between Seward and the Friends has been exacerbated over the past several months -- ironically, by one of Jesse Lee Home’s most ardent supporters.

David Seaward is a young mayor, in his mid-30s, who defeated incumbent mayor Willard Dunham by just 11 votes last October. Seaward used to write a blog about local politics, but he’s never held elected office before.

Mayor Seaward has long said that Coastal Villages is a top priority for his town. In an interview with the Seward Journal just after the election, he said he would resign before endangering the project.

(Because the Seward Journal is owned by City Council member Vanta Shafer, Seaward declined to be interviewed for this article, citing Shafer’s “opposition to JLH project.”)

Seaward believes so strongly in the Jesse Lee project that he brought it up in Juneau while representing the city as mayor -- an action in conflict with what the city council wanted. 

At the mayor’s forum before the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee Feb. 2, Mayor Seaward testified before Sens. Al Kookesh, Danny Olson and Linda Menard. In the few minutes he had before the committee, he mentioned the “CDQ port project” and the restoration of the Jesse Lee Home, one after the other, destroying in one breath the distinction the city council was so careful to maintain.

As a result, the council voted to officially censure the Mayor last February, forbidding him to travel on behalf of the City for six months.

The way forward

Lately, a lot of the business of resurrecting Jesse Lee has been done outside of the city it will impact. Decisions are made in Juneau or Anchorage. Even the property will be out of city hands when assistant city manager Ron Long, in cooperation with Vessel, works out a way to package the property and transfer it to the Friends.

But the project will also be getting more local, when the Friends open an office in downtown Seward and hire an outreach coordinator.

As the magnet school project movies forward, it remains to be seen whether having a local presence will ease the Friends’ relationship with the Seward, or whether the Friends’ ambitions will impact other Seward projects. In the meantime, all that’s to be done is wait, and try to keep it from collapsing on top of someone.  

Used with permission of Seward Journal, where this article first appeared.