Wasilla Prepares for Life After Palin
Moose Bites, a catering outfit that specializes in Cajun dishes such as chicken and sausage gumbo, was named Business of the Week at a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Wasilla, Alaska. The exclusive event, which takes place every Tuesday at the Grand View Inn & Suites, just off East Parks Highway, draws the most important people in this town of 10,000: the mayor, state senators, small business owners, and others who just want to network. Nearly everyone at the Grand View—a pharmacist, a fitness club manager, a member of a prominent rockabilly band—said they were there simply to meet other VIPs. That’s because Wasilla, once famous for being the home of Sarah Palin, is scurrying to forge a post-Palin identity now that the onetime mayor and Alaska governor appears to have deserted politics—and the city—in favor of bus tours, Fox News, Twitter, reality television, and big-money book deals.
Hoping to avoid the fates of Hope, Ark., Plains, Ga., and other Presidential hometown backwaters that briefly garnered national attention merely to return to being backwaters, Wasilla is in the midst of a rebranding campaign. The city’s elite are hoping to jettison their hockey mom, lock ’n’ load image in favor of a yuppified bedroom community. That’s why the town is lobbying for a $715 million bridge that would link Wasilla and Anchorage, slicing the one-hour trip in half and jacking up real estate prices. And it’s why Mayor Verne Rupright, a chain-smoking ex-U.S. Air Force medic with the manner of Boss Tweed, is considering the development of an historic district that would feature antique shops, art galleries, and cultural exhibits about things like Eskimos and the Iditarod dog-sled race. And it’s why Paul Villnerve, who co-owns Moose Bites with his wife, Janice, recently decamped to Wasilla from New Orleans to offer “palate-specific personal meals” for $350 per week. “Once we get that bridge, in 20 or 30 years, we’ll be San Francisco,” says Mayor Rupright. Then he gestures toward Anchorage. “And that’ll be Oakland.”
Although Wasilla remains a small suburb filled with moose, gun racks, and big-box stores, business leaders are already pointing to progress. They include new businesses such as McMillen Designs (which specializes in postmodern A-frames), Younique Boutique (fashions for mother-daughter duos), and the Grape Tap (a tapas restaurant and wine bar). PCMD Technologies, a data-retrieval and Web design firm, is at the core of what Rupright hopes will be a Silicon Valley of the Yukon.
Locals are already beginning to see a ripple effect. Bill Popp, president and chief executive of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. (AEDC), has noticed an influx of architects, engineers, and other young professionals into the area. While most of the houses in Wasilla cost $200,000 or less, according to real estate database CLRSearch.com, there are a growing number of homes valued at more than $250,000 and a handful above $500,000. Popp also notes that one of the sleekest new businesses in the state, Alaska Distillery in nearby Palmer, has lent the region a hitherto unforeseen élan with its high-end flavored vodkas—including rhubarb, smoked salmon, and birch syrup. Alaska Distillery is trying to capitalize on an already thriving local foodie scene. Gilbert Ramos and his wife, Sandra, retreated to Wasilla from Los Angeles several years ago, and in 2007 opened their Mexican restaurant, Jalapeños, right off East Parks Highway. Sandra Ramos recalls that business was slow at first but picked up after word of their halibut tacosgot out.
Yet the future San Francisco of Alaska also faces considerable obstacles. For starters, a big chunk of Wasilla—a town famous for oil and timber, strip malls, and teenage moms—has some reservations about becoming the San Francisco of anything. The self-described “colonists” who settled in Wasilla 30 years ago don’t want much to do with anywhere else, particularly Anchorage, where one finds Subarus, brick-oven pizza, and Democrats. Meanwhile, the Anchorage elite view a potentially civilized Wasilla with skepticism. “There’s some beautiful scenery in the surrounding area,” Al Koch, the owner of All Alaska Tours, says of Wasilla. “But we wouldn’t build a tour to Wasilla. Haven’t done it, never will.”
A larger problem is Wasilla’s complicated relationship with the only famous person ever to come from Wasilla. The former governor remains the city’s greatest tourist attraction, even if she now spends a great deal of time with journalists and political consultants in the lower forty-eight. Lyn Carden, executive director of the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 2,700 of the 3,600 tourists who visited Wasilla last year came because of Palin. She also says that fans across the country send the chamber gifts that they hope will be forwarded to the Palins: Georgia peaches (for the whole family), neckties (for Todd), hair ribbons (for Willow and Piper), and toys (for baby Trig). Carden also notes that locals are protective of the Palins: “There’s no map of the stars in Wasilla.” Yet others think it’s time Wasilla, no matter how much it may have profited from the Palins, moves on. “Like a wound that heals, you can’t get rid of what has occurred,” says Rex Butler, an Anchorage attorney whose clients include Levi Johnston. “But, for the most part, Wasilla will return to what it was.”
It may already have. Palinmania, notes the AEDC’s Popp, peaked in early 2009. While that prompted a flurry of reality-television programs which boosted the profile of Alaska in general and Wasilla in particular, both TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska and the National Geographic Channel’s Alaska State Troopers have since been canceled. Palin’s coyness about her 2012 plans has some fearing Wasilla might not even reach the heights of Hope, Plains, Yorba Linda, and other places that have little going for them except that one very important person once, a long time ago, lived there. Stoking this fear is the Palins’ purchase of an 8,000-square-foot home in north Scottsdale, Ariz., ostensibly to be nearer to Bristol. “To me, the Sarah boom was like an oil boom or a gold rush,” says Paul Johnson, chairman of the economics department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “It was good while it lasted, but it’s over. Perhaps Arizona will experience its brief kind of Sarah tourist trade.”
Still, Wasilla will not give up. Carden says that, thanks to Palin, “people now know they don’t have to study a foreign language to come here.” She adds that the advent of roller derby in the city has become a symbol of possibility. Carden, who runs the Denali Destroyer Dolls, believes roller derby “is for women of all walks of life. Derby can save your soul or give you one.”
Meanwhile, Waterloo, Iowa, the hometown of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and White House hopeful Michelle Bachmann, is already primed to become the next Wasilla. Waterloo is bigger—with nearly 70,000 residents—and just as rural. “Does the birthplace of a potential U.S. President mean something more or different than what we are?” says Aaron Buzza, the Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director. “Potentially.”