Wrangell’s government has committed millions of dollars to develop new housing lots at the site of a former Bureau of Indian Education boarding school. The borough faces serious questions about how to ensure local officials’ mission is met — getting the new housing lots into the hands of residents who see Wrangell as a year-round home.
Earlier this summer, the former Wrangell Institute site about 5 miles south of downtown Wrangell was covered in thick alders. Now, trucks drive back and forth from the site, carrying loads of brush. Large swaths of the sloping area have been cleared, the site is dotted with heavy machinery, and the ground is covered in rock pads, getting ready for future construction.
The western half of the 134-acre property, closest to Zimovia Highway, is being developed into 22 new housing lots. A future phase of the project will add another 20 lots to the back of the property.
The development is called Alder Top Village, after the historic Lingít name for the site, Keishangita.’aan.
Late last year, the local government set aside more than $2.2 million from local utility funds and sales tax revenues to develop the site. Contractor Ketchikan Ready-Mix broke ground on the project in late summer.
At a Sept. 12 borough Assembly meeting, Borough Manager Jeff Good said Wrangell officials want Alder Top Village to help families grow roots in town.
“The whole goal of the property and what the Assembly wanted to do was to help lower to middle-income families and the younger families to be able to afford a property — to build a house or have a house, and then to move here for jobs,” Good said, “Because that’s an issue for us as we move forward. And that really impacts our economic development.”
But how does a municipal government ensure newly-built lots in Wrangell’s tiny, tight housing market actually get into the hands of the intended buyers – those lower-income young families that will build a home and a life on the island? It’s been a topic of discussion at borough meetings throughout the past few months.
At a meeting on October 10, Wrangell Economic Development Director Kate Thomas said her office is deep in discussions about how best to sell the lots — whether through public surplus auctions, sealed bids, a lottery-style draw, or over-the-counter sales. She said they’re looking at case studies of other municipalities’ lot sales.
“We’re also looking at criteria of the sale or stipulations,” Thomas said, “Whether that be a requirement to have Alaska residency (a certain number of years) or terms for development, like you have to develop within five years of purchasing the land, minimum down payments, and other stipulations.”
She provided an example: “[A] stipulation that we saw that was interesting was: in order to qualify for lottery sale, you couldn’t already own land, so that gets the land into the hands of first-time landowners or home builders, which would be a positive thing, although there are some challenges or downfalls to that. And then limiting the number of parcels that people can purchase so that you don’t have a monopoly on the land or something like that.”
The borough does have some time to make decisions.
“While construction is underway for roads and clearing, we still need to do the contract bids for utilities,” Thomas said. “So there’s a lot more planning and construction that needs to take place before they’re ready for sale.”
But she said local interest is already high: “Since ground has been broken, we’ve probably received 10 different inquiries. And the folks on the ground out there said they probably could have sold six parcels already just with people walking up on site.”
The history of Keishangita.’aan (Alder Top Village) plays a role in how it’s being developed as well. In 2021, development plans for the site ground to a halt after a First Nations group found the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children on the grounds of a former boarding school in British Columbia. In the following weeks, the remains of thousands more children were found at former school sites around Canada.
The horrific discoveries prompted the U.S. federal government and Alaska State Historic Preservation Office to look into residential boarding schools in the state.
A federal records survey and ground survey of the site did not find cultural artifacts or human remains at the former Wrangell Institute, and development plans resumed in 2022.
But because of Alder Top Village’s historical significance, Wrangell is still required by the State Historic Preservation Office and Army Corps of Engineers to have an archaeologist on-site any time contractors might be disturbing the ground.
Wrangell’s Assembly recently approved a $96,000 contract extension for the archaeologist, as development work has gone longer than expected. The monitor costs about $1,600 per day, a total of $214,000 so far in the development process.
That’s caused some frustration for local Assembly members like Bob Dalrymple, at the October 10 meeting.
“I don’t begrudge the work — the necessary work to do this,” Dalrymple said. “I do begrudge the amount per day, it just blows me away. How many people is it that we’re paying for $1,600 a day? Is it one person? How do I get a job like I gotta say…”
If the ongoing first-phase development of Alder Top Village extends past November, it could cost even more.
Wrangell Capital Facilities Director Amber Al-Haddad said contractors are doing what they’ve been asked to – but major developments like this take time.
“What they’re doing is exactly what is needed, clearing the whole land first and then coming through and they’re excavating and returning, filling, right as they excavate,” Al-Haddad explained. “So they’re going through and doing it as fast as they can, it’s just a long project.”
While development work is ongoing, Wrangell’s Economic Development Board will hold a work session on the subdivision — including how to sell lots and what stipulations might be required for purchase — at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 16 at City Hall.
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