Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jammed! Perfect storm of traffic snarls sunny Saturday at Alaska State Fair

Traffic backs up the Palmer-Wasilla Highway
last Saturday in this photo taken near
East Equestrian Street
A beautiful day at the Alaska State Fair last Saturday kicked off with the always popular parade. A real-deal famous musical act - country mega-duo Big & Rich - played that night. And for once, a BP donation got kids under 12 in free ... on a weekend! 

The result? The worst fair traffic in history. 

A trip to the fair Saturday turned into an hours-long wait as unprecedented congestion jammed the Glenn Highway and gridlocked the already-clogged Palmer-Wasilla Highway. 

By afternoon, miles of traffic extended away from the fair in both directions.

Perplexed drivers got out of their cars with traffic at a standstill. At least one driver reported her car overheated. Another said she spent an hour and half alone in front of the Palmer Carrs store where Palmer-Wasilla hits the Glenn. 

Big & Rich got stuck in traffic coming in from Anchorage. Crowds maxed out the fair’s sewer system. Six Shamrock Septic trucks called in for emergency pumping couldn’t clear the congestion either. 

Thanks to quick thinking by fair staff and fast action from Palmer police, the band and the trucks got escorts. The concert started on time. The poop got pumped. 

But the rest of us got stuck in traffic. 

The fair’s own marketing director, Dean Phipps, confronted the problem first hand. Phipps took his son to a football game in Houston. 

“It took me two hours to get back to the Fair,” Phipps said in an email this week. 

So what happened? Inept parking lot staff? Not enough parking? Problems with crowd control at fair entrances?

Everybody involved - Alaska State Fair officials, state transportation, Palmer police - agree on one thing: Saturday’s fair attendance was huge. 

Rick Feller, a state transportation spokesman, said he was told Saturday that crowds broke records. Feller heard more than 50,000 people crammed into the fairgrounds. An official attendance number won’t come for a few weeks, when the fair finishes its tally.

Julie Ebner, of Talkeetna, gets friendly with Denali
the llama at the Alaska State Fair on Tuesday.
In 16 years working the fair, Palmer police Commander Lance Ketterling said he’s rarely seen anything like it. But, Ketterling said, he also wasn’t surprised. 

“When you have a weekend like that, especially when its sunny, you can almost anticipate big crowds,” he said. “This past Saturday was extremely busy. The overflow parking lot was heavily used. They just had a lot of people.”

Ketterling said no major wrecks happened near the fair; Feller said he heard there were a few fender-benders that created a domino effect as the flow of traffic slowed. 

Phipps said that, as far as the fair is concerned, the real problem is that the Glenn remains two lanes, instead of four, from the Parks Highway to Palmer. And Palmer-Wasilla will get crowded until the Bogard Road extension is done. 

“It is a year-round situation that is heightened during the Fair,” he said. 

As for parking on Saturday, here’s the text of Phipps’ email on the subject:

“We filled up all of our three main lots and then opened up our 20 acres of overflow parking in Brown lot, which is the area adjacent to Hamilton Farm.  When that area started to fill, we filled in empty spaces in Yellow Lot that were vacated.  We also did that for half of the available empty spaces in our Red lot.  We have certified flaggers at key areas like the intersection at Purple Gate that are employed by Starplex.  Palmer Police assisted in many areas helping with expediting traffic.  We had a continuous flow of cars going in and being parked in several areas, but on a perfect storm day with sunny weather predicted and storms the following day, everyone got up and all came to the Fair at the same time.” 

In case you’re wondering, there’s no shuttle service at the Alaska State Fair as there is at some of the big fairs in the Lower 48; the fair couldn't work out a system with MASCOT. The Alaska Railroad operates a fair train, but it’s too pricey for most - around $50 for an adult round trip. Valley Mover makes the trip - once daily - for $12.50.

 In the meantime, at least one problem highlighted by last weekend’s crowds appears fixable. 

The fair has received funding for a new sewer system, Phipps said. It should be in the works soon.  

-- Zaz Hollander

Friday, August 24, 2012

Boarded up but still open

Photo courtesy Mat-Su Borough
Boarded windows grace the front of the Mat-Su Borough
Administration building in Palmer. The boards will be gone
in November, when a new addition is framed in. 
If you haven’t noticed by now, the historic Mat-Su Borough building, where people pay their property taxes, get driveway permits and attend borough assembly meetings, is looking rough. East-facing windows  in the stately 1935 former school building are boarded up and the main entrance is fenced off with tall chain-link.

The building is getting a large renovation, one that Assembly members hope will allow borough residents better access at meetings and also afford borough employees some much-needed additional office space.

The work means the main entrance to the building is closed off. Patrons can enter through the Information Technology department or through the doors on the west side of the building. Mat-Su Borough meetings, such as Assembly, Planning Commission and Platting Board, are being held at the Mat-Su Borough School District Administration building for the next few months.  Here's a map to the School District Admin building.

Borough Public Works project manager Jeff Walden said construction on the $5.8 million addition is expected to be complete by July 2013. The windows are boarded up mostly as a precaution to borough workers through November, when Walden said the new addition should be framed in. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Farewell to another piece of Mat Maid

Fire crews respond to the Mat Maid fire early the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 7 in a photo
posted that morning on Facebook by Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson.

A fast-moving fire destroyed the historic Matanuska Maid warehouse early this morning. 

The building was long vacant. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters arriving on scene could see the building was likely a total loss, so they focused on a bigger problem: making sure the blaze didn't reach the nearby, petroleum-loaded Crowley Maritime tank farm.
Photo by Rindi White
By daylight, the Mat Maid warehouse was gone.
The dairy's former bottling plant is part of the
property on the right.

The first 9-1-1 call came at 3:33 a.m. from someone at Valley Hotel, Palmer public safety director Jon Owen said this morning. A total of 31 separate pieces of firefighting apparatus responded to the blaze, including three ladder trucks. Engines came from Palmer Fire Department and Mat-Su Central Fire Department, where responders mustered to an "all-call" from emergency dispatchers.

Palmer Fire Chief John McNutt was the first person to get to the fire. McNutt drove around the 9-acre Mat Maid complex and spotted flames shooting out from below the eaves. Within minutes, the roof was engulfed, Owen said.

Crews operating under a "surround and drown" strategy suppressed the fire. But their goal wasn't saving the old warehouse building, built in the 1930s, Owen said.  

Their focus instead was preventing "the conflagration" sure to follow if the fire reached the adjacent  Crowley Maritime Corp. fuel sales office next door, where all the petroleum products on site would pose a tremendous problem should they ignite, he said.  

The Palmer tank farm holds 100,000 gallons of petroleum products and serves as a distribution center for Anchorage, Palmer, Wasilla, and all the Matanuska Valley, according to Crowley's Web site.

The fire was knocked down by 6:40 a.m.

Photos courtesy Palmer police Officer Jason Crockett

The warehouse used to be used for produce sold out of one end. Rindi remembers walking through it with owner Bill Ingaldson a few years back; during the visit, she picked up an old potato sack decorated with the Matanuska Maid in her skating costume. Palmerites may remember that former city manager Bill Allen hoped to put a convention center on the property. 

This is the second destructive fire at the Mat Maid complex. A wind-whipped arson fire set by three teenagers destroyed the hardware store in February, 2003. 

Investigators were at the scene by 10 a.m. or so trying to determine the cause of the fire; finding the ignition source is key when there's no obvious heat source like a boiler, Owen said. Anything suspicious will be followed up. The investigation is being conducted by John Bond, an inspector with the Alaska State Fire Marshal's Office, and Palmer police Sgt. Shayne La Croix.

Anyone with information about this morning's fire is asked to call Sgt. La Croix at 745-4811.

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Back from our summer hiatus

This year's Summer Reading Program wrapped up Friday, July 27 with a finale party at the Palmer Library.

 Look for new Palmer stories in the weeks ahead: progress on the borough building renovation, the Eagle Hotel opening, more money for the MTA Events Center and much more. Curious about something happening around town? Drop us a line and we'll get the scoop!