By Marie L. Monyak
June 15, 2006
Whale Park and the old Ketchikan Public Utilities Water Department Warehouse on Park Avenue were both destined to become small parking lots until this group worked with the City to encourage a more aesthetic use for the properties. Looking for a written history of Ketchikan? In 1992 this organization published Spirit, written by the well-known writer June Allen as well as three editions of Our Town, the most recent in 2003.
Tourists, as well as those in the tourism industry are familiar with the local walking tour map of Ketchikan. The redesigning of the map that occurs almost yearly, as well as the corresponding interpretive kiosks found at Thomas Basin Park, on Stedman Street and Front Street is funded by this organization.
Have you figured out who this enterprising non-profit group is? Does Historic Ketchikan ring a bell? It should since they've been around since 1990. When interviewed, Executive Director Dave Kiffer gave a great deal of insight into the organization's activities and the benefits derived from them.
According to Kiffer, in the mid 1980's a survey was done by the Borough of Ketchikan which found there were more historic structures per capita in Ketchikan than anywhere else in the State of Alaska. "This was the impetus in 1990 to create Historic Ketchikan," Kiffer said.
The basis behind their efforts is to boost economic development through the use of the town's history. In recent months there's been much talk of retaining the historic appearance of Ketchikan's buildings. Historic Ketchikan takes that idea one step farther. Kiffer explained, "We work to protect and preserve Ketchikan's history for future generations and then use that history to improve the local economy."
The funding to accomplish their noble goals comes primarily from community agency grants from the city of Ketchikan and the occasional state or federal grant, according to Kiffer. Additional funding is provided by the sales of their publications mentioned earlier.
One of Historic Ketchikan's proudest accomplishments is the Clover Pass School, a one room schoolhouse which was signed over to them by the now defunct Pond Reef Volunteer Fire Department. Kiffer said, "That school is on the National Registry of Historic Places. We took it over three years ago when it appeared it would be torn down and now we're working on getting grant money to turn it into a community center and neighborhood park."
White Cliff Elementary School is another building that appeared to have lost it's usefulness until Historic Ketchikan intervened. "Two years ago we took the lead in convincing local government to look at redeveloping White Cliff School and have since handed over the management of that process to the Senior's and the Arts Council, although we are still working with them in that process," Kiffer explained.
Many local residents and tourists enjoy the various promenades, walkways and trails throughout the downtown area. "We're working with the city to develop a downtown waterfront promenade," Kiffer said. "The proposed Newtown Seawalk is part of this as well as the walkway on the Thomas Basin breakwater. We have also spent several years trying to convince the city to make pedestrian improvements such as wider sidewalks in the downtown area." Now what local resident wouldn't be pleased with that news?
Kiffer went on to explain that they are also working on a loop trail that would connect the north side of Ketchikan Creek with Married Man's Trail on the south side. "Juneau has their glaciers but Ketchikan has fish and we don't capitalize on it," Kiffer went on to say. "We want better trails to Ketchikan Creek and viewing platforms."
The old KPU Water Department Warehouse across from the American Legion on Park Avenue was recently renovated by the city. Based on information provided by Kiffer, the city wanted to tear the building down and make a small parking lot but Historic Ketchikan convinced the city to build retail space and a creek side viewing platform. The group has been given a deadline of one year to find a retail tenant to lease the space.
The most recent activity of Historic Ketchikan is a yearly event appropriately called, "Paint Up, Fix Up." Every spring the group advertises the offer of free paint and technical assistance to qualifying residents. The program is available for both residential and commercial buildings providing the applicant consults with Historic Ketchikan on the paint schemes and the paint is purchased from local retailers. Kiffer said, "We've had nearly 300 properties in the program over the years and in just 3 or 4 years we've assisted one-third of the buildings downtown."
Not to be confused with the Tongass Historical Museum, Historic Ketchikan works as a clearinghouse of local historic information. Many local agencies and businesses refer people to Historic Ketchikan to answer questions. One can't help but laugh when Kiffer recites some of the questions he has fielded from those searching for information on long lost friends and relatives with a minimal amount of information such as, "Great Uncle Bob had a fishing boat in Ketchikan in the 1930's, is it still there?" or "We're pretty sure our grandfather was a miner in Ketchikan around 1900, is the mine still there?"
Anyone with knowledge of Kiffer's inimitable style of humor can only guess at the answers he must give when asked to search for a needle in a haystack! He does occasionally comes through for a lucky few, like last year when a family from New York visited Ketchikan and were able to see the bunk house and cannery their grandpa lived in and worked at in 1921. This summer a family is coming to town to see where their mother was born. Historic Ketchikan was able to determine that the woman was born in 1940 in what is now the New Deal Apartments.
The next time you hear the name Historic Ketchikan, think of the good they do for Ketchikan residents and tourists alike, very quietly, very discreetly.
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