This artist rendering shows a conceptual design for a renovated Centennial Building. Tongass Historical Museum image.

The Ketchikan City Council decided Thursday night to move slowly and carefully forward with plans to renovate the downtown Centennial Building.

An assessment shows that about $6.8 million worth of basic upgrades are needed just to bring the circa-1967 building up to current code requirements. To get it up to modern standards for the Tongass Historical Museum’s needs, the city would have to find $8.2 million.

If the city chose to tear down the old facility and build new, the cost would be about $9.5 million.

Museums Director Michael Naab stressed during the Council’s special meeting that planning is in the early stages.

“It will be up to the Council, of course, and the people of Ketchikan to decide how we’ll proceed from here,” he said. “It’s not something we’re going to do overnight and nothing is cut in stone. But there are certain realities that will probably come home to us very clearly in the information that’s presented tonight.”

The city worked with the Anchorage-based Foraker Group on the assessment and cost estimates. Martha Schoenthal of Foraker said the purpose was to give the city an idea of what is needed.

“We’re not even suggesting that anyone write a check tonight,” she said.
“We’re not asking for decisions tonight. I guess you could consider it a report to the public on the findings throughout this process.”

The process started when the Ketchikan Public Library was ready to move out of the building that it’s shared with the museum for many years, and into its own facility on Copper Ridge. The city has historically intended the downtown building to serve as a museum.

Renovation cost estimates were based on a space-needs analysis, best practices for museums, code and condition needs, and a concept design that was developed with the help of community members.

Schoenthal said the museum definitely needs more space. Collections, for example, “were totally overflowing into the offices, administration space, boiler rooms, along the hallways and two different offsite locations. And then, really, very minimal temporary and permanent exhibit space, and then no program space whatsoever.”

She said the museum should have about 14,000 square feet to meet its needs over the next 20 years. The Centennial Building has about 15,000, so the existing footprint works well. It just needs to be remodeled.

“The exhibit space would double, looking at about a 3,000-square foot exhibit space and about 600 square feet for temporary exhibits, provide a classroom for educational programs, and consolidate collections storage on the basement floor,” she said.

Tim Whiteley of Bettisworth Welsh Whiteley Architects addressed the basic needs of the old building. He said much of the mechanical and electric systems are original and should be replaced, it needs a new roof and windows, it needs an elevator and larger restrooms to comply with ADA regulations, and it will need a fire suppression system.

He added that the building has minimal insulation.

“I was really surprised by the lack of insulation,” he said. “I guess I shouldn’t be, 1967 was before the OPEC oil embargo and fuel was quite cheap, but things have changed since then and unfortunately the residents of Ketchikan are paying to maintain this building and heat it. I figure if they just increase to what current practice is today, we would increase (efficiency) by about 400 percent, just (by) adding the minimal insulation you would normally. That would be a great thing to do.”

Overall, though, he said the Centennial Building is structurally sound.

A handful of people attending the meeting spoke about the museum project. Some supported a remodel, while other said they liked the idea of a brand-new building.

Native artist Holly Churchill spoke in favor of expanding the local museum.

“Having watched the changes of Ketchikan, I think it’s important for our youth to understand how Ketchikan became who we are today,” she said.

Kathleen Light of the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council said that an expanded museum would be good for Ketchikan’s economy.

“It’s an opportunity for you guys to make something for Ketchikan that not only keeps our history intact and lets us learn about it and keeps it vibrant for the community members, but is a place where the million people that get off the ships can go, and it’s a showplace and we can be proud of our community through this museum,” she said.

The Council, though, expressed concerned about the cost, especially after raising property taxes this year to help pay for the brand-new fire station and library.

Council Member Bob Sivertsen said, “I don’t think that wil the numbers here before us that it’s going to happen right away. We’re going to have to step back and figure out how to phase this in.”

Council Member Dick Coose suggested that the roof is the most important item to fix, followed by the bathroom remodel.

“We need to get a roofer up there and see whether that’s a couple of corners or places that need to be repaired, or whether you gotta to mow the moss that’s on top of it,” he said. “I understand it’s about 5 inches deep, so you could probably use the lawnmower and help a little bit. But we need to fix that leak so we protect the integrity of it so it’s there for whatever we use it for.”

City Manager Karl Amylon said planning takes time, so there is no need for the Council to decide right away whether to spend the money. He stressed, though, that taking no action was not an alternative. He said the city’s infrastructure is aging, and needs repairs sooner rather than later.

“You’re looking right now at spending close to $2 million on City Hall. Look at what the borough spent on the Reid Building. Both of those projects were the result of deferring, and deferring and deferring activity, and now we’re stuck with a $2 million City Hall water infiltration project,” he said.

There is the potential for a 50-percent museum matching grant program from the state. Council Member Matt Olsen says that if Ketchikan has plans ready to go, the city could be first in line for that program.

Amylon says he will have some kind of initial plan ready for the Council’s first meeting in February.