FAIRBANKS – A lot has changed in this northern frontier city of nine lives since the black gold started flowing south from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay more than 40 years ago.
As with many small towns in that other part of the country Alaskans call Outside, Main Street long ago faded away, but in this case, it didn’t go far. It just moved a dozen blocks north and reshaped itself in modern American style around a monster parking lot that now forms the town square.
A new public arena framed by fast-food franchises and big-box stores with names familiar to most Americans centered around a parking lot that can hold thousands of vehicles is a fitting testament to the oil that altered the city’s future in so many ways.
An old hub for the gold mining that faded away, the so-called Golden North city was reborn with the start of North Slope oil development only to look like it might die as both oil production and oil prices slumped in recent times.
Walking around an unusually warm and vibrant city now (the temperature hit 70 on Tuesday), it’s hard to believe that only a few years ago this community felt like it was dying. People started fleeing in 2012 and the exodus didn’t stop until last year.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a Marine officer, deserves some of the credit. With help from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, he managed to steer hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending toward the military bases south and east of the city.
“The local economy has picked up steam with preparations to house two new F-35 Lightning II squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base as well as nearly 3,000 personnel
and their families when they arrive in 2020,” economist Neal Fried noted in the 2019 Alaska Economic Trends.
“More than half a billion dollars in construction began at Eielson in 2017, and the work will remain in high gear through 2019 as the Air Force prepares for the planes, civilian workers, airmen, and their families. Additional work is underway at Clear Air Force
Station and Fort Greely.”
The Alaska community that looked to be in the worst economic shape a few years ago now looks to be in the best economic shape with growth in construction, tourism and professional services expected to more than offset losses in state and government jobs, according to Fried’s analysis.
Even with state budget cuts threatening funding for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), one of the biggest of the community’s long-established economic players, the community feels more upbeat than it did a few years ago, or maybe it is just the season.
The state’s Interior always packs more energy in the 70-degree temperatures of summer than the 50-degree-below zero temperatures of winter that sometimes made the struggling, little city of old feel more like a Siberian outpost in a Russian novel than an American city.
Life below zero
No longer is this the quiet the hardscrabble, end-of-the-road community it was when I first arrived broke at the end of the Alaska Highway then still widely known as the Al-Can, short for Alaska-Canada Highway, in 1973.
There was then no Walmart Superstore anchoring one end of that fully motorized town square, and no Lowes Home Improvement, no Home Depot, no Fred Meyer, no Office Max, no Barnes & Noble, no Domino’s Pizza, no Bentley Mall claiming to be the northernmost mall in North America, and not much of an economy.
The city lived off UAF, the shining monument to higher education on the hill on the edge of town in College; the dreams of some still hopeful miners from an earlier time; the military, which has been a dominant Alaska presence since the territory was bought from the Russians; and some starry-eyed young people with Earth Day visions and plans of living off the land in what was the last state to allow homesteading under the Federal Homestead Act.
A summer living on grayling, a less-tasty relative of Alaska’s salmon, snowshoe hares and rice before sliding into a fall that disappeared in days into winter ended the homesteading idea for someone who’d grown up in the richer ecosystem of Minnesota living what would pass for today’s subsistence life in Alaska. Others were far more persistent. Some of them disappeared into the wilderness and hung on for years.
Not many of them are out there now except maybe to visit their homestead cabins of old. Alaska, especially Interior Alaska, is a damn tough place to live off the land. Just cutting the wood to keep a cabin warm at 40- or 50-degrees below zero is a brutal chore.
And Interior Alaska saw a lot of cold in the ’70s. My second winter in Alaska, the temperature dropped to 40-degrees below zero at the start of January and stayed in the minus-40 to minus-55 range almost to midmonth. There was one day when the high temperature only reached minus-52.
Fairbanks was then home to only about 15,000 people although there were another 15,000 scattered around the nearby countryside in a census that included the 9,000 military personnel at Fort Wainwright. The state itself was still more rural than urban, and you didn’t have to go far from Fairbanks to find rural.
Jobs were scarce. I eventually went back to school primarily to apply for a student loan in order to survive although a friend did later help hook me up with a job as a maintenance man at the Fairview Manor apartment complex, a barracks-like complex of 20 buildings in four, interconnected units built in the 1950s on what had been Weeks Field, the first Fairbanks airport.
The centrally heated apartments were a first-class addition to the city when constructed and a prematurely aged complex – 50 degree below zero temperatures does that – by the 1970s when a constant war was waged to kill off the cockroaches imported from Outside by the constant churn of newcomers through the buildings.
My Fairview Manor memories are of the cockroach wars, the regular battles with clogged pipes (if you’re smoking homegrown weed, don’t flush the stems down the toilet), and the boilers. The boiler had to be checked hourly during the winter to make sure heat was maintained or everything would freeze in a flash.
Sometimes things froze anyway. Someone left a garage door open too long, and the next thing we knew we were dealing with burst pipes. But it wasn’t a bad job.
Pulling night duty on the maintenance team, a collection of oddballs if ever there was one, was near-perfect for someone back at university. There was ample time to read, except on those rare occasions when some night-time painting was ordered, or grab a nap here and there.
The Fairview is gone now. Demolished and replaced by the Weeks Fields Estates low-income housing project. Airport Way – the busy, four-lane thoroughfare that runs past the Estates – doesn’t look much different from the old days, but everywhere else the infrastructure has been built out to help move all those motor vehicles to that new town square.
And it’s not just the local roads that have been improved. The George Parks Highway south to Denali National Park and Preserve and on to Anchorage is now a pleasure to drive. It was a much rougher road in the ’70s, and south of the park entrance, it was still under construction.
There was no Glitter Gulch along the Nenana River outside the park entrance, either. Some now call that the ugliest stretch of highway in Alaska; others disagree. Views sort of split depending on one’s opinions on uninterrupted vistas versus signs of civilization.
Whatever your opinion, however, there is no doubt that the growth in and around Denali helped lift Fairbanks tourism as well.
“Some 58 percent of summer visitors to Fairbanks are on a cruise land tour,” according to Cruise Lines International Association, which just happens to have a photo of Glitter Gulch at the top of its Economic Impacts page. “Despite being hundreds of miles from the ocean, Interior Alaska enjoys the economic benefits of the cruise industry each summer, as about 22 percent of all cross-gulf passengers extend their visits to include excursions into the Interior.”
Tourism has helped spark the same build-out in hotels here that has been seen in Anchorage, but there’s no denying the big economic driver in this conservative town: government.
Almost one out of every three jobs is a government job without counting uniformed military personnel, according to the Department of Labor figures. Add them to the mix and government jobs account for about 40 percent of all employment.
The Interior city is also lucky in that it gets a boost in funding government not available to a lot of other communities given that that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System run by the Alyeska Pipeline Company passes through the Borough.
“Alyeska is the Borough’s largest property taxpayer, exclusive of federal impact aid for education,” Borough auditors note. “Federal impact aid is received for educating student-dependents of the uniformed military and totaled $17.0 million in the fiscal year 2016.”
Together those funds account for almost 20 percent of the revenue in a Borough largely funded by property taxes. The military payments make up for the educational services needed by military dependents, but Alyeska – luckily for Borough residents – contributes significant tax revenue while requiring almost nothing in the way of services.
The past and future
How much of what is here today would exist without oil is hard to say, but for better or worse this place would be significantly less than it is. Some would no doubt prefer it that way.
A lot of the frontier charm, if you could call it that, has given way to a sense of middle-class suburbia. Oil lifted the state economy to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars and Fairbanks got its share.
The state has collected more than $150 billion in taxes from the oil industry since production started at statehood. The Alaska Resource Development Council (ARDC) contends “the oil industry accounts for one-third of Alaska jobs and about one-half of the overall economy when the spending of state revenues from oil production is considered.”
Fairbanks benefitted from both oil jobs and government jobs once the oil began to flow. The state university system, headquartered in Fairbanks, grew as state oil revenues grew. State jobs in Fairbanks grew as the state oil revenue grew. Borough jobs in Fairbanks grew as borough oil revenues grew.
And they all fed back on each other to fuel even more growth. The graph of Fairbanks’ population climbs like the West Buttress of Mount Denali from 1970 to 1990 before flatlining and then starting to fall in 2013.
Not that the boom years were all roses. Fairbanks might have experienced some of the worst of the oil boom in the mid-70s when it was the Dodge City of the North.
“The construction of the Alaska pipeline, now in the midst of a summer offensive of bulldozers and welding torches, will cost at least $6‐billion, will take another two years or more to complete and will finally mean a steady flow of oil each day from the edge of the Arctic Ocean south to the ice‐free port of Valdez,” wrote New York Times reporter Winthrop Griffith in 1975. “The project will also kill hundreds of men, turn many women into whores and shatter the quiet lifestyle of the communities along its 798‐mile route.”
Griffith was close. He missed the mayhem, the assaults and the murders, and there weren’t all that many women turned into whores. The whores were largely imported.
”…In the three summers and two winters of the Alaska pipeline project, crime here has moved beyond its earlier boundaries and has become an issue of considerable concern in this city of 38,000 people,” the NYT reported in 1976.
“There is talk of a giant theft ring that some think preys on the pipeline. Some downtown retail businesses find that their trade has been threatened by an increase in petty street crime. A bookstore no longer stocks children books because it believes the street has become unsuitable for children.”
It didn’t last long. By 1979, the University of Alaska School of Justice was reporting Fairbanks crime down 49 percent. Young construction workers sporting pockets stuffed with cash from high-paid, pipeline construction jobs were on their way out of town, and the city was settling down to get ready for the next boom, which would be fueled in large part by state oil revenues.
By 2016, the Alaska Policy Forum was flagging hundreds of millions of dollars in local projects here in its “Pork Report.” But what is pork to one is another’s bread and butter. Nobody complains much about the public money the state has spent in this city.
When you have to put up with real Alaska winters, not the milder temps of the marine-influenced Anchorage metropolitan area, it’s easy to think you deserve a little reward from somebody.