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A pair of letters published last month in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner about downtown inebriation illustrated the perspectives and philosophies of two of our most dynamic and vocal business professionals.

A letter submitted by Jessie Desmond described the issues faced by The Red Couch, where she works as a baker. The Second Avenue business is owned by Jessie’s mother.

A response by Sheri Olesen, owner of Chartreuse on First Avenue, soon followed and emphasized the attributes of downtown while suggesting approaches to issues like inebriation.

I caught up with each author and asked for more insight into their recent public comments, hoping to hear their thoughts on the conversation and downtown climate. Both were happy to discuss and share details about the decision to speak out and how they hope to enrich downtown Fairbanks.

A Pressing Issue

Jessie, who is pursing a second bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spoke with me early Tuesday morning while pulling butterscotch cookies out of the oven at The Red Couch. We sat down next to a cozy fire and talked over her decision to use the local newspaper as an avenue for public communication.

“There doesn’t seem to be a public forum, except for the News-Miner, in which to talk about (the inebriation issue),” Jessie says, and points out that she sees the perceived risk posed by inebriated individuals as a major barrier to downtown patronage.

Her own approach to the problem includes providing a positive business environment. “We keep the outside really nice, we clean up trash, and we don’t have much problem as long as we keep up the looks of our business on the outside and inside,” Jessie says. “People seem to respect that.”

Jessie suggests others might do the same and sees potential for city-wide beautification that would inspire greater community value of the downtown core. She worries that businesses focus too much on tourists and not enough on year-round service to locals. She feels the collective efforts of business owners can serve as a catalyst to inspire city and nonprofit work on issues like inebriation. Jessie relayed that many customers complimented her letter and she was happy to give voice to a problem with which they are also concerned.

The Business of Activism

Sheri takes ownership of downtown by using her business as a vehicle for change. She feels her success as a business owner is tied to the degree to which she addresses the most pertinent community issues, and encourages fellow owners and employees to use their leadership to raise money, initiate projects, and enhance the overall experience of downtown.

Her main solution to inebriation is actually pretty simple.

“I still believe that the more people that are downtown, the less of a problem it will be,” Sheri says. She thinks more people could be drawn in by creating a no-wake zone on the river, installing public art, and renovating old buildings. Sheri also works with a nonprofit group called Project Fairbanks to hold downtown events and raise money for charities.

She shares Jessie’s thoughts that keeping up downtown appearances can create a welcoming environment that encourages good behavior.

“If everyone pitched in and revitalized and made it look nice- that’s going to bring people downtown,” Sheri agrees. In fact, she issued a call to action for her fellow owners. “This summer- I encourage all businesses downtown to step it up however they can to make it better- that’s my challenge.”

Sheri has received positive reviews of her letter, including praise from Mayor Jerry Cleworth and Representative Scott Kawasaki. But she seemed most moved by the task passed on to her generation during a recent conversation with Valene Cysewski, an elderly friend who has lived in Fairbanks since 1949.

“She says, ‘Honey, you’re the one who’s got to do it now,’” recalls Sheri. “It’s our turn to step up and give it the best we’ve got.”

Community Matters

As Jessie and I eased into our morning conversation at The Red Couch, a gentleman stepped through the door and returned the wallet of a customer who had dropped it on the sidewalk outside.

Perspectives raised by each downtown character are part of an ongoing discourse about capitalizing on the strengths of downtown while addressing its issues. Both authors are anxious to confront downtown issues, but both know that huge potential rests in this very same community. Perhaps the greatest source of change can, and will, come from within.

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