Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New store opens in tough commercial spot

Sandy Belk, owner of Chickadees
A choice spot on a busy streetcorner is a boost for any business, but for the past few years the commercial spot on the corner of Arctic Avenue and the Glenn Highway has been less a boon and more a burden.

It used to be Fisher’s Fuel’s Palmer gas station. Then Fred Meyer moved in across the street with its fuel rewards program and business suffered. The former gas station sat empty for a while, its paint slowly peeling away, until it became Husky Electric. But that business didn’t take root – the store was soon shuttered again.

Now it has new life as an antique/local goods/consignment shop called Chickadees. Run by Sandy Belk, who has lived in Palmer with her husband, Brad Ohs, for 11 years, the store is filled with home and garden accents. You can also get local eggs there and Belk said she would be selling fresh local tomatoes and cucumbers as soon as they’re available.

Some in the mental health community might recognize Ohs' name as the former administrator of North Star Behavioral Health's Lazy Mountain facility. He recently opened his own mental health practice, Mindful Exchange, just a few blocks away from Chickadees. Belk’s heart is in art and design. She said she’s been collecting antiques, architectural salvage items and vintage clothing for years.

“Everyone has always told me, ‘You need to have a shop,’” Belk said.

Recently, the timing was right and her dream of opening a shop became a reality. She opened the store last weekend.

Bold colors and intriguing finds make the store a fun stop.
The former gas station has been completely reinvented, with bright colors and inventive nooks and crannies. Inside you can find antiques - from intricately styled glass serving ware to a vintage tricycle and even a few unexpected finds like a decades-old book of Alaska songs. 

“These are things I have collected specifically for the shop,” she said. “I do consignments … I buy estates, I do shop Craigslist.”

And, she said, she has a network of friends who want to sell upscale home d├ęcor items that aren’t quite right for a garage sale and who don’t want to bother with Craigslist.

“It’s word-of-mouth, small-town Palmer,” she said.

So how do the eggs and veggies enter in? Belk said she has worked in animal husbandry for years, working for veterinarians, managing farms. She is working with a local woman who has 30 free-range hens in a big yard and who brings fresh eggs in daily. She has a line on a few different farmers who will sell tomatoes, cucumbers and other delicious local produce through the summer. Belk said to check for signs outside that will announce what’s fresh each day.

Belk initially hoped to have more ag-related offerings; she has two wagons full of plants right now, including some geraniums. But in her open, windswept lot, the plants are taking a beating. Unless the wind stops and the sun makes a pronounced appearance, Belk said she’ll hold off putting pretty baskets outside.

Why “Chickadees”? Belk said she’s a birder and loves the hardy little birds who stick around all winter long, bringing cheer to the long, lightless days with their hopeful song. She wants her store to be a fun, bright spot in keeping with its namesake’s character.

Chickadees is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 745-2200 for more information. 

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Watching the Eagle like a hawk

Wondering what’s up with the “Opening Soon” Eagle Hotel that looks a long way from opening in downtown Palmer? The Post was too. 
You may remember the story that our own Melodie Wright broke last year: the owner of Sicily’s Pizza had purchased the space on South Colony Way formerly occupied by the Gold Miner’s Hotel, which closed down in January 2008 due to health and fire code issues.
Melodie never could reach Sicily’s owner, Atli Dobrova. I struck out, too, though a nice lady with a Russian accent passed along lots of messages to another family member, Egzona. 
But based on information from the city it appears that yes, the Eagle Hotel is still under construction and no, the new owner isn’t walking away. 
Apparently it’s taking longer than expected to get the, shall we say, under-maintained building back up to snuff. 
“It’s just an old building,” said Palmer building inspector David Meneses. “It has not had tender loving care. So consequently, if you don’t repair a building and keep it up to date it takes more to get it up to date.”
Atli Dobrova and his company, AD Real Estate LLC, spent $92,500 on building alterations last year. And unlike the prior owners, AD is also current on its borough property taxes. The company paid its tax bills in 2010 and 2011 for $20,203 and $18,629 respectively. The Gold Miner’s owners owed the borough $50,000 in back taxes and owed other people, too. 
The Eagle Hotel building permit gave the building owner 180 days to start work and then as long as work doesn’t discontinue for 180 days the permit remains good, Meneses said. The company is doing general repairs like electrical upgrades and handicapped-accessible improvements, as well as more aesthetic improvements - new paint, new carpet. 
There’s even a very basic Web site - - that initially makes it look like things are pretty swanky inside until you realize that the room photos are probably stock and at least a little bit of the copy actually describes the Millenium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage - views of Lake Spenard, fresh seafood at the Flying Machine Restaurant. They're still working out the bugs and probably just wanted a virtual placeholder. 
A company representative stays in touch with Meneses. He’s pretty sure AD Real Estate is just as eager to open as all the pizza-lovers and Palmer boosters who want that off-white elephant in a crucial downtown property thriving again. 
“They’re dumping a lot of money into it and not getting anything back,” Meneses said. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fundraiser benefits paralyzed Palmer outdoorsman

Maybe you’ve seen the flyers at businesses around town or spotted one at Turner’s Corner on the way down from a spring trip to Hatcher Pass. 
The flyers describe fundraisers for a young guy named Bradley Johnson, a 24-year-old from Palmer who broke his back in a February snowmachine accident. His family hopes to pursue aggressive stem-cell treatment that could help Brad walk again.

The Post doesn't know about the rest of you, but it seems like this winter was especially hard on people who play in the snow. We heard about Bradley from friends with a broken back in their family, too. 

Here’s the rest of Brad's story, and ways you can help him get on his feet again.
Johnson knew his back was broken as soon as his snowmachine hit the windblown snow -- hit way too hard -- while landing a cliff jump at Hatcher Pass on Feb. 4. A helicopter flew him to Providence Alaska Medical Center. Doctors fused five vertebrae in his back and held his spine together with pins and screws. Brad stayed at the hospital through the month of February. 
He’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Before the accident, Johnson spent most of his time outside, hunting, fishing or riding something - snowmachines, four-wheelers, dirt bikes. His aggressive personality and gumption earned him the nickname B-Rad. His mother, Annette Johnson, makes no apologies for the way her son got hurt. 
“He’s a very aggressive snowmachine rider. He was jumping off a cliff like he had done hundreds of times before. But this one was bigger,” she said. A heavy avalanche backpack didn't help, either.
Now his gutsy attitude is serving Brad well. Generally, with a T-12 fracture like his, paralysis starts at the rib cage and includes the abdomen, leaving a patient struggling to control his torso. But within a few days of the accident, Annette said, Brad could feel his abdomen. A little while later, he could feel his hip. 
He never gave up, and always talks about what he could do rather than what he couldn’t, Annette said. That picture up top? That’s Brad -- after the accident. With his doctor’s permission, he scrambled back onto a fourwheeler, strapped on his legs with bungie cords, and got back out there. 
Brad worked construction for ASRC and CH2M Hill. He can't go back to that job, his mom said, but plans to get trained up in something involving engineering starting this fall. Most of their basic medical costs are covered or will be.

But the family needs about $50,000 for a stem-cell procedure. They don’t expect to raise it all in one fundraiser. They’re holding a taco dinner at the Elk’s Lodge on Saturday, and they’re also selling off some really cool prizes.
Johnson's parents Annette and Johnnie, with help from a remarkable array of supporters, are selling tickets for a snowmachine, a queen-size handmade quilt and a framed Fred Machetanz print, "Fishing Rights." Tickets for the snowmachine - a 2006 Skidoo Summit donated by James Bracker - are $10 each and $50 for six. Tickets for the quilt donated by Fay and Al Zimmerman are $5 and $25 for six. Tickets for the Machetanz print, with framing donated by The Gallery in Palmer, are $5 and $25 for six.

"Fishing Rights" by Fred Machetanz
Bingo Mania owner Trudy Visker is sponsoring the fundraising drawings.  The drawing will be held at Bingo Mania on Sept.1; you don't need to be present to win.  

Tickets for the fundraising drawings are on sale at the following locations: NonEssentials and Black Dog Java Joint in Palmer; Alaskan Crafters Gifts & Souvenirs and Bingo Mania in Wasilla; and Turner's Corner on Palmer-Fishhook Road. For tickets and information, call 745-3430 or 232-5180. 

The family also set up two benefit accounts:
Wells Fargo
Account Name:  Annette Johnson for the benefit of Bradley Johnson
Account Number:  9766718184

Matanuska Valley FCU
Account Name:  Annette Johnson for the benefit of Bradley Johnson
Account Number:  135887-FB

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Avs depart ice arena, leaving city with seats to fill

Palmer has lost its junior-league hockey team after spending $1.1 million on a major upgrade to the MTA Events Center that coincided with the Alaska Avalanche's move to the city two seasons ago.

Photo courtesy of the City of Palmer
A Zamboni smooths the ice at the MTA Events Center

Last month, the North American Hockey League approved the sale of the Alaska Avalanche to a Johnstown, Pa., partnership. Team owner Mark Lee didn’t respond to an interview request, but the team had logged declining attendance numbers despite two strong seasons. Lee is an investor and co-owner of the new team.
The Avalanche left Wasilla’s Curtis C. Menard II Memorial Ice Arena in 2010. That year, Palmer's city council agreed to arena improvements like new locker rooms, hundreds more seats to meet hockey league standards, an office and equipment storage. Some $400,000 from the Legislature helped pay for the project. Lee promised to pay the city $50,000 toward the upgrades as part of the team’s agreement with the city. 
Lee still owes the city at least $25,000, city manager Doug Griffin said this week. The team also got a reduced rate on ice time for practices and games, though the city shouldn't have trouble selling any leftover time at the popular rink. 
The city is trying to find an "amicable solution" to Lee's financial obligations, said Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson. City officials this week were looking into what Lee still owes and whether any benefits the city got from the team might offset what’s owed. 

Hockey team or not, the city is still hoping to finish the project that started with the arrival of the Avalanche. 

The team's departure comes even as the city waits on another $725,000 in state funds to finish the third phase of the MTA center expansion. 

Officials last year requested another $500,000 from the state to install an elevator, generators, complete an outdoor canopy and increase arena seating to 1,100. Now that the Avs are gone, it seems the legislative appropriation would be moot, right?

No, city officials say. The upgrades to the arena weren't just for the team, Johnson said. The improvements also benefit future users of the soccer fields outside. The 3-year-old fields still need to green up and aren't playable yet - maybe by late summer, the mayor said - but once they are, players and fans will be able to access locker rooms and restrooms. The mayor also hopes to host future Palmer High School graduations at the arena.

And there's a new emphasis on a potential emergency-response role for the center that comes with a bit of an ick factor. 

A few months ago, the city council amended the description of the center's expansion plans to include emergency response.

On the recommendation of the office of the late Rep. Carl Gatto, the city in February changed its state capital request to include $225,000 for a backup generator, bringing the total request for the MTA center to $725,000.

The city in March adopted a resolution revising its description of the MTA expansion: “As the City becomes more aware of what community assets are needed to address major disasters and emergencies, it has become apparent that the MTA Events Center could fulfill a specific need for the Palmer area as an Evacuation Staging Point, Logistical Supply Staging Area, or Mass Fatality Storage and Processing Facility.”

"Mass Fatality Storage and Processing Facility"??? Yikes. Let's hope that need doesn't arise any time soon.

Barring disaster, the city is working to diversity the uses of the arena. Coming this Friday, May 12: roller derby. The Denali Destroyer Dolls take on the Rage City Rollergirls, with doors opening at 6 p.m. In another upcoming, albeit much more tame event, the city will hold a "Capital Project Fair" from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. on May 18 at the center.
The mayor said she's confident the arena will continue to serve the public. The loss of the Avs contract bothers her less, she said, than the loss of the "community-building" that accompanied the team's presence in Palmer.

"It bothers me more to lose the enthusiasm. People came in and were excited about having a home team," Johnson said.

-- Zaz Hollander
The message on the Web site of the Junior "A" hockey team
formerly known as the Alaska Avalanche. The new owner
has yet to pick a name for the Pennsylvania-bound team.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Goodbye snow, hello litter!

Photo courtesy Mat-Su Borough
Trash dragged from the trees awaits pickup
during a recent community cleanup.
Snow is mostly gone and that means the detritus of fall and winter is making itself hideously evident. Our neighborhood’s public spaces are littered with blown-around cardboard boxes, gritty food wrappers and two seasons’ worth of litter. Thank goodness it’s clean-up time!

The city of Palmer is expanding its cleanup day into a whole week this year, giving residents more time to gather things up.

Ailis Vann, administrative assistant and cleanup coordinator at the city, said the expanded cleanup event this year accommodates people who wanted to pitch in but weren’t able to do so on a Saturday. Several had asked for a different day or expanded time, she said.

Fans of the post-cleanup barbecue, don’t fret – there will still be grilled dogs and treats available on Saturday for the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce cleanup day.The Palmer Chamber asks volunteers to sign up by 9 a.m. at the pavilion across the street from the library. Meet back at 1:30 p.m. for the free lunch. Children taking part will be eligible for great prizes, including six bicycles from Palmer retailer Backcountry Bike and Ski. Valley Center for Recycling Solutions and Ready Recycles will also be there, with bins where recyclable litter can be turned in.

For those who want to clean up their neighborhood during the week, Vann said residents could stop by Palmer Public Works at 1316A S. Bonanza St. during business hours to pick up the big yellow ALPAR cleanup bags. Litter pickers can drop full bags off at Public Works throughout the week, or save them up and haul them over to the downtown pavilion on Saturday.

One of the most exciting changes this year, Vann said, is that the city will also be collecting yard waste – leaves and grass clippings – which will be taken to Palmer hay and sod seller Country Garden Farms, where it will be turned into compost.

Residents can bring bags full of yard waste (a small amount of animal waste is not frowned upon but please remove non-biodegradable trash from the bags before delivery) to a big, Tyvek supersack at Public Works. Vann said people bringing yard waste should be prepared to dump their bags out, not just toss the bags in the supersack, as plastic sacks don’t degrade.

For city residents on the trash pickup route, Vann said the yard waste drop-off is a great deal. Drive around neighborhoods in town and it’s easy to find garbage bins by the curb with a small pyramid of bagged yard waste stacked to the side. The city charges $2.50 per bag extra for the additional trash and most of it doesn’t belong in a landfill, she said. And the city has to pay to get it there in the garbage truck.

“It’s a super-easy way to save money for us and for the consumer,” Vann said.

Palmer isn’t the only place looking trashy these days. Communities outside the city are cleaning up too. Here's a list of community council cleanups, and contact info for anyone who wants to take part.

-- Rindi White