Pioneer Park 2020

The front entrance sign to Pioneer Park is seen, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

The first thing I wanted to do after the public hearing on Pioneer Park’s upcoming master plan, was to go directly to Pioneer Park and see it through the eyes of people who love it.

The public hearing, held virtually via Zoom Tuesday night, was filled with fans of the 44-acre historic park and many of those people provided ideas of how the park could improve. Strong local connection and love for the park were obvious.

Organizers were absolutely delighted at the participation. As many as 60 people tuned in at one time and the numbers hovered in the 40s and 50s for most of the two-hour meeting.

Organizers had three questions for local residents: What do you love about Pioneer Park? What would you change at Pioneer Park? What is your dream for Pioneer Park’s future 10 to 20 years from now?

Pioneer Park is unique. It is heavily visited by  people from outside Alaska but it is also a popular site for local residents.

The park opened in 1967 as part of the Alaska ’67 Centennial Exposition, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alaska’s purchase from Russia. 

There were earlier master plans, in 1980 and again in 2005.

“Both plans were helpful to the direction of the park,” said Donnie Hayes, Fairbanks North Star Borough project manager. “Unfortunately many of those projects were not accomplished. Other things both plans missed out on was the best way to manage facilities we have. Also, how to catch up on maintenance issues we have in the park.

“This plan will be a little more full encompassing,” he added.

He provided an overview of upcoming projects including a proposed new year-round playground that includes a winter ice skating loop and year round bathrooms that are ADA accessible; 

The old Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in Fairbanks, will get a new roof, a new paint job inside, and some structural issues will be addressed. Restoration of the SS Nenana Riverboat, a $2.5 million project, also begins next summer. Miniature golf returns and food trucks will be at the park every Monday throughout the summer.

When organizers opened the hearing to public comment, the floodgates opened. 

“I love the nostalgia with the carousel and I love when the community comes together for Halloween Town, etc,” said Lindsay Saunders in a written comment.

“I love that it is free  and very accessible, easy to park, centrally located. There is something for everyone,” said Davin Rockstad in a written comment.

“My kids call it the Train Park,” said Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward. “We love the train.”

Some people wished for the return of the Northern INUA Show, a former presentation on Alaska Native Games. JoAnn White recalled getting married on the SS Nenana.

Suggestions were extensive. Begin a water taxi along the China River. 

Provide more up to date mingling space. Share more local history.

Remove buildings that have been closed for over a decade. Increase the walkability/connection between the park and downtown with an art walk. Build an elevated platform so visitors can get an aerial view of the park. Turn the train into a flag stop so people can get on and off at various points around the park.

Wade Binkley of Riverboat Discovery said he was excited about all the suggestions.

“On the tourism front, the more interesting/educational/exciting venues and activities that Fairbanks has, the better,” he wrote. “It makes us a better destination and helps all of us in the community. 

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he added.

Of course the longstanding dispute over whether the park remain Pioneer Park or revert to being called Alaskaland came up in conversation. But most folks tried not to get sidetracked on that issue at this meeting.

“Alaskaland was meant to capture the history of Alaska and it did a great job of doing that, at that point in time,” Mayor Ward said. “But it never carried it further. We have an opportunity now. I see us taking our history and sharing that through the park.”

He envisions the park rebuilding and expanding.

The importance of input from young people prompted a suggestion for forming a Youth Advisory Committee.

The team working on the master plan will hold an advisory committee meeting on May 11 and again in late June. A second public hearing will be held on Aug. 12. A draft master plan is expected to be completed in mid-June.

“It’s good to feel good about Fairbanks,” said one attendee.

“This is your park. This is your plan,” organizers said. “We are here to guide you.”

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.