Breathing room: Capitol complex expands in time for session

Posted: Monday, February 01, 2010

The Alaska's Legislature's spiffy new office building is nearly ready for the Legislative session with the Juneau and the Alaska public among its big beneficiaries.

The Thomas B. Stewart Legislative Office building, which has been under renovation at a cost of $5.5 million, is already being occupied.

Some trim in the skybridge and terrazzo tile in the stairwell are yet to be completed, said Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, which operates the complex.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, who helped get the project started, said it is important for the Juneau to have a strong legislative presence as part of its role as a capital city.

"State government is a core part of who we are and how we identify ourselves as a city," he said.

The new building is the third in the Capitol complex along with the Capitol itself and the Terry Miller Legislative Office Building.

Juneau provided a boost to the project by buying the former Scottish Rite Temple from the Masons for $725,000, and selling it to the Legislature for $1.

Botelho said the Masons knew how valuable the property could be to Juneau.

"The lodge was well aware of the potential value in terms of legislative use, and were civic-minded in wanting to come to the city to sell it," Botelho said.

Varni said the new building will make it easier for legislative staff to operate, as well as for the public.

Offices in the building will include the clerk of the House of Representatives, the House and Senate records offices, House and Senate conference rooms, the Beltz committee room, the Senate Majority press office, the Budget and Audit office, Discovery Preschool and a public lounge.

The Stewart building will add 14,000 square feet of office space to the Capitol complex, which makes up about 12 percent of the total space.

For the public, the most notable addition may be a lounge. Legislative staffers say an area in which groups of constituents can gather and plan their office visits has long been needed.

Varni said the lounge not only has comfortable couches, but a big-screen TV tuned to Gavel-to-Gavel and wireless Internet.

"There has always been a demand for this, so we knew it was really needed," Varni said.

The lounge has coffee, and a soft drink vending machine.

Works from top Alaskan artists hang on the walls, and Juneau residents will likely note that one of those artists already has a legislative connection. Juneau's Rie Muoz's daughter-in-law, Cathy Muoz, represents the Mendenhall Valley in the House of Representatives.

Another public lounge will remain as well; a much smaller one in the foyer by the back door on the second floor.

From outside the annex, the building's most notable feature is a skybridge connecting it to the Capitol. The bridge cost as much as $250,000 to construct, but Varni said it is crucial in tying the new space with the existing building.

The skybridge enters the Capitol on the second floor, where Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, had his office before becoming a senator.

The skybridge also will be on the four-story Stewart building's second floor, after the floors are renumbered to line up with the Capitol building's.

The building itself is named after Thomas B. Stewart, a legendary Alaskan who both helped build the state and develop Juneau. Shepherding a bill naming the building for Stewart was one of the last official acts of former Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, before heading for an Obama administration position in Washington, D.C.

A formal dedication will take place later in the session, when members of Judge Stewart's family are able to attend and a new plaque has been prepared, Varni said.

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