Berkowitz defends investments as more Anchorage businesses move to outdoor services

The mayor denied involvement in recent business expansions as more restaurants, shops move to street services
Barricades line an Anchorage street ahead of the expansion of several downtown businesses.
Barricades line an Anchorage street ahead of the expansion of several downtown businesses.(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 7, 2020 at 8:38 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Many owners of shops and restaurants in Anchorage are trying to kick-start business while still following local mandates. Several in downtown Anchorage have spilled out on to municipal streets, and in turn, triggered speculation of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s involvement in their expansions, something the mayor vehemently denies.

“A lot of the criticism took the fact that I was an investor in these businesses and drew some unwarranted conclusions,” Berkowitz said Friday. “I have gone to great lengths not to let my official duties in any way affect my personal investment decisions, and vice versa.”

Certainly, the downtown area of the city looks a bit different now than it did before the coronavirus pandemic: Several blocks are fully or partially shut down as restaurant and business owners expand operations into municipal streets. However, while the mayor has financial interests in a handful of businesses around town, they are not located on any of the closed streets. He also said Thursday that he had no hand in choosing whose businesses can or can’t be built up, and that he didn’t bring the idea of downtown expansions forward in the first place.

“All businesses in town had the ability to make decisions,” he said. “I realize this has gotten a lot of attention, but if you look closely, a lot of the accusations are untrue.”

A recent blog post tied Berkowitz to several entities, including Crush Bistro, one of the downtown restaurants that expanded out onto G Street in front of its brick and mortar restaurant. Berkowitz does not have a share or ownership in Crush, according to state records filed with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Berkowitz does, however, share business interests with two of the owners of Crush Restaurant, who are managing partners in three limited liability companies overseeing restaurants in which Berkowitz has stakes. Those LLCs operate Spenard Roadhouse, South Restaurant + Coffeehouse, and Snow City Cafe.

Regarding his investments in local restaurants, records filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission show that, in 2019, Berkowitz personally received between $10,000 and $20,000 for his membership stake in Snow City Cafe and Spenard Roadhouse, two popular Anchorage dining houses. For a personal stake in South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, he received between $2,000 and $5,000, according to the state’s filings.

None of these restaurants have expanded on to municipal streets, though they have all extended their outdoor dining services, something that is allowed as the municipality and local business owners navigate how to safely operate during the pandemic.

The Anchorage Downtown Partnership introduced the proposal to to get businesses to move into streets downtown, according to the group’s executive director, Amanda Moser. The idea was then proposed to businesses all around the downtown area and grew from there, she said.

“We want to stand with businesses and find ways for them to be viable,” Moser said. “We put it out there, and folks came back to us and offered the opportunity. And we partnered on that, and did the road closures.”

Moser said she’d seen cities with walking districts across the Lower 48, and thought it could work in Anchorage. The idea was pitched in May at a meeting of the Economic Resiliency Task Force, a group convened by Berkowitz early in the pandemic. The group then went to businesses to figure out who would be in support of the move and who wouldn’t, and started work with the municipality on road closures and required permits.

“It was an idea we thought was a good idea, so we promoted it,” Berkowitz said of his involvement in the project, “and requiring that the state sign off on the distribution of alcohol on streets. So this is something we thought would encourage more businesses to use.”

In June, Berkowitz signed Municipality of Anchorage Emergency Order 12, which allows for temporary licensing adjustments so that approved businesses such as restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and wineries can “facilitate physically distant outdoor seating” during the pandemic. It also aligns local guidelines to better match with laws mandated by the state, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for which decided during a meeting early this summer that a temporary expansion of licensed premises would be beneficial during the pandemic.

“We know, when we’re dealing with the pandemic, that outside is better than inside,” Berkowitz added, “and we want to make sure businesses have as many options as possible.”

Several streets are currently being used as either community spaces or areas for dining downtown. G St. between 4th and 5th Aves. is currently blocked off, and includes seating for Crush Bistro and a place for games and activities situated outside of Sevigny Studio; F St. between Williwaw and Flattop Pizza is also closed and, for the time being, boasts divided seating sections for use by the two restaurants as well as a couple of others in the area.

“It’s all about your neighborhood, right? It’s all about community,” said Katie Sevigny, artist and owner of her namesake studio downtown. “This is very much about downtown partnership, about revitalization of downtown.

“We were just like, ‘We’re gonna do it, we’re going to make something happen,‘” she added, “and I feel like we have made a really great community space here.”

G St. between 4th and 5th Aves. was also explored as an option. Not all of the property and business owners there were on board with the plan, said Moser, citing issues such as limited parking, traffic and other potential concerns, so the Anchorage Downtown Partnership did not move forward with developments there.

Still, more than 30 businesses across Anchorage have moved to outdoor dining, Berkowitz said. Moser said around 50 or 60 entities across the state have applied for outdoor alcohol permits through the state board so far.

Among the businesses next set to open with street seating are Wild Scoops, a locally-owned and operated ice cream shop, and Fat Ptarmigan, a popular pizza place that added a cider house in February, both of which are located in the downtown district on E St.

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