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In Alaska, will a land sale be the end of Hope?

Residents of this remote, scenic village need families with children to move in — their school is down to 13 students and could face closure. But the town is likelier to become a vacation-home spot.

November 07, 2010|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Hope, Alaska — To say that this town called Hope may not have much of a future, one might only look at its location: at the end of a narrow, 17-mile road that springs promisingly off the main Kenai Peninsula highway only to run out of steam near the one-pump gas station on the edge of town.

"We're basically people who live at the end of the Hope Highway," said Fayrene Sherritt, who moved here with her husband from Anchorage 14 years ago, and has no intention of giving up on the place now.

The 160-odd residents are awaiting a public land sale in January that will make 22 new lots available for sale in the rustic backwoods village, perched scenically on the shores of Turnagain Arm. Ideally, they would be sold to families with children who could save Hope's only school, which this year is down to 13 students.

"It's not that many lots, but when we think about the future, it's not going to happen unless we do something like this," said Susan Anderson, the town librarian, who moved here from Detroit in 1978.

Small towns in rural areas everywhere have had trouble holding on to schools as families shrink, populations age and jobs move toward cities. What is different here is how hard residents have tried to thwart the tide of modern demographics — and how relentless the seep of change has seemed, despite their best efforts.

Hope's charm is also its downfall. Residents have come to realize that young families hoping to buy lots for starter cabins likely will be outbid by well-heeled professionals from Anchorage and the Lower 48 wanting to build vacation homes, which would contribute little to the community and nothing to the school.

Worse, the expected high sales prices are almost certain to trigger big property tax increases, possibly driving out some of the town's few remaining families with young children.

"That was the hardest thing for me," said Jim Skogstad, a 35-year Hope resident who helped organize the land auction. "To come back to this community and tell them that we had good intentions, but unfortunately, our taxes are all going to go up."

Negotiating the two-hour drive through striking wilderness from Anchorage, it is hard to believe that Hope and nearby Sunrise once formed the most populous town in Alaska. Ten thousand miners converged here not long after the first gold in the territory was discovered in nearby Resurrection Creek, in 1888.

Today, quite a few residents still spend afternoons digging for gold, and sometimes find it. But there aren't many actual jobs outside of the summer months, when tourists flock into the town's few cafes, lodges and river rafting enterprises.

Some villagers drive 45 minutes to work at the Alyeska ski resort in Girdwood. Two have oil jobs on the North Slope that allow them to work two weeks and stay home two weeks. Sherritt sells handmade jewelry, and she and her husband, a retired plant manager, operate an art gallery at their home.

The town lives in the no man's land between having enough jobs for people to survive, yet not so many that it loses the very qualities that brought most people here to begin with. With its rustic cabins, library in an old one-room schoolhouse, fragrant forests and meadows thick with fireweed, Hope is one of the few places that still looks like what Alaska is supposed to look like.

"There's an economic threshold that they sit beneath, and that's their destiny, and it's also their struggle," said Marcus Mueller, the Kenai Peninsula Borough's land management director, who is overseeing the land auction. "As soon as Hope becomes an easy place to live in, Hope won't be Hope anymore. That's the fear — that a radical change will happen."

Residents had initially opened talks with the borough about a land auction several years ago — when the student population was down to five and closure seemed imminent — and proposed pricing the lots cheaply and distributing them by lottery.

State law, however, required that the lots be sold at market rate, and two appraisals valued the land at up to $40,000 an acre. And instead of a lottery, the lots will have to be offered by sealed bid.

"The community's feeling was at least with a lottery it would have been the luck of the draw and everyone had the same chance," Skogstad said. "Whereas with the sealed bid, it's basically people with money."

This year, three of the school's 14 students will graduate. Next year's enrollment is forecast at 11. State policy weighs toward closure of schools with fewer than 10 students, based on a count each year in early fall.

Jim Dawson, who is principal at Hope and also at schools in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass, said he struggled at all three. "This year at Cooper Landing, we had 10 during the count. We don't have 10 now," he said.

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