Working in Mountain View: ‘Welcome to the team’

For about a week this summer, Cassandra Knight spent a lot of time in a crowded basement room at the Mountain View Community Center.

She browsed employment listings and filled out applications at the neighborhood job center, surrounded by other people doing the exact same thing. One day, she spotted a notice for an upcoming job fair at the new Bass Pro Shops Outpost at Glenn Square. She applied for one of the many open positions, and the company told her they’d be in touch. A few hours after that, her phone rang and Knight learned she got the job.

“Welcome to the team,” said the hiring manager on the other end of the line.

It was a good thing to hear, Knight said. She was surprised by how quickly it happened. It felt like a weight was lifted off her shoulders. Just a few months later, Knight said the job at the neighborhood retailer is already helping pave the way toward a brighter future for her young family.Cassie Knight

There are plenty of hours to be had, she said. The schedule is brisk but accommodating. And after about 90 days on the job, Knight said she was able to get a modest raise.

“I have a means to support myself and my children,” she said. “That’s my number one goal.”

She’s not alone. In Mountain View, the ripple effects of recent business development are being felt throughout the neighborhood. Knight – who was raised in the area by a single mom of six – sports a perky blonde haircut, glasses, a facial piercing and a cheerful attitude. She once attended Mountain View Elementary and the local middle school; now she raises three children of her own in an apartment she shares with her mother off of Parsons Avenue. At the job center this summer, Knight said there were many of other women just like her.

“There are a lot of single moms – especially in Mountain View – that basically walk to the Boys & Girls Club every day, trying to find a job,” she said.

While the Boys & Girls Club occupies most of the Mountain View Community Center, Nine Star operates the neighborhood job center from a bustling suite in the basement. It’s packed with desks and computers and people on the hunt for employment. An oversized bulletin board next to the door is papered with informational flyers, and site coordinator Sharon Pulou works out of a cluttered office at the front of the room.

She said the job center helps two kinds of people: walk-in jobseekers, and those who receive public assistance and are subsequently referred by the state. Hundreds of people visit the Mountain View location every month, and the job center helps them rework resumes, practice interview skills, contact potential employers or achieve a much-needed GED. Those can be some of the biggest challenges, Pulou said.

Many of the people who come through the job center struggle with lack of education or lack of experience or both. Knight has lots of work experience – she said she first began working at McDonald’s at 15. She spent nine years at the burger chain and worked her way up to a managerial promotion, but her education fell to the wayside. When she turned down the McDonald’s manager job in favor of a move to the Lower 48, she realized her options were somewhat limited.

“I didn’t graduate high school, which was a big mistake,” Knight said.

Living outside Alaska, she spent some more time working in fast food. She thought about going back to get her GED, but things kept getting in the way. Finally, fleeing from domestic violence in Kansas City and pregnant with her third child — a daughter — Knight moved back to Mountain View about two years ago. She made another attempt at going back to school, but ran into more personal issues. That’s when — relying on welfare and struggling to provide for three children under the age of 10 — she headed in to the Mountain View job center.

She said the neighborhood in general had changed a lot since she was a girl. There’s more housing, including dozens of new duplexes with bright paint jobs and manicured lawns, developed throughout the neighborhood by Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Knight said the schools seem safer, and the special education program in which her son is enrolled seems to be more effective than it was when she went through it as a child. There’s a new bank and a new museum and a new library.

But one of the biggest changes took place at the old Porcupine Pit Station property on the southwest side of Mountain View Drive. Near the site of a former National Guard armory, once blighted by environmental contamination, the land was developed into a retail space nearly 10 years ago.

Glenn Square Shopping Center opened its doors in 2007. For the next few years, though, it remained relatively empty: Its largest tenants were a Michael’s, a PetCo and a Bed, Bath & Beyond. There was once an Old Navy, but the clothing company didn’t wait long before pulling up stakes and moving to Tikahtnu Commons off of Muldoon Road. Even though Glenn Square sits near one of the busiest intersections in the entire state, it saw only a slow trickle of business during those first several years.

In 2011, neighborhood leaders organized a public forum in hopes of spurring growth at the stagnant development. According to Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together, a community action group, the mall promised to bring more than 700 retail jobs to Mountain View. As of 2011, there were fewer than 100.

Then, in October 2012, things started to look up. Bass Pro Shops announced it would open its very first Alaska location in the quiet shopping center along the Glenn Highway, and construction soon began on the new 80,000-square-foot retail space. The company made plans to hire more than 100 employees. At the neighborhood job center just a few blocks away from the mall, Pulou said the news brought fresh and exciting opportunities.

“I love seeing the growth,” she said.

Not only was the new retailer bringing jobs, it was bringing jobs within walking distance. That was important, Pulou said, because many of the people who come through the job center have limited transportation. Some people rely on Route 45; the bus that runs between the Downtown Transit Center and the Alaska Native Medical Center. Some people walk. Some drive, but no matter how you slice it, Pulou said transportation is often an issue for the people who visit the job center.

It was for Knight. While she’s usually able to drive the few blocks to work, she shares the family car with her mother. Knight said her mother helps care for her three children when she’s away, and sometimes — between school and daycare and appointments and work — those schedules overlap, and the kids need to get picked up or dropped off when Knight needs to be on the clock.

For another job in a different part of town, that could be a problem. Here in Mountain View, Knight said, it’s not: Her mom can take the car and she can make the quick walk through the neighborhood to and from her new job at the shopping center.

“It helps tremendously,” Knight said. “I save on gas, I save on pretty much everything and I’m still able to make a living.”

Terry Holm, Bass Pro Shops’ human resources manager, said accessibility has played a role in the store’s development since the beginning. When the retailer first began hiring, Holm said they organized a job fair at a downtown hotel but didn’t see the turnout they’d hoped for. Between 400 and 600 jobseekers showed up, Holm said.

When construction at the new outpost hit delays and the company decided to host a second job fair, Holm said they held the event at Glenn Square. It was much more successful than the first time around, he said.

“Mountain View’s way more accessible than downtown,” Holm said.

The human resources director said Bass Pro never looked at zip codes when making hiring decisions – it just looked for people with the right experience. But at the end of the day, about 24 of those new employees came from Mountain View, Holm said.

Knight was one of the first local residents to start work at the new shop. She remembers helping add the finishing touches to the massive retail space; aiding the final transformation into the scene customers see today.Bass Pro Interior web When you walk through Bass Pro’s heavy, arched doors, you first enter a wood-paneled atrium filled with warm light and fur-covered couches. Mounted big game heads and Alaska Native art and memorabilia decorate the walls. The customer service desk, where Knight spends most of her workdays, sits just to the left.

Beyond the atrium, the store opens up into thousands of square feet of merchandise. Overhead, the curved ceiling is painted bright blue and geese float through the artificial sky, suspended in midair. An enormous fish tank stands against the back wall, surrounded by a stone façade. People carrying shopping baskets and Bass Pro employees in green polo shirts roam the floor.

For Knight, it’s more than just a job; it’s a place that strengthens her neighborhood through economic stability. She said the free public events — like the upcoming Santa’s Workshop extravaganza — don’t hurt, either.

“It helps the community,” she said.

Back at the job center, Pulou said she’s seen the day-to-day impacts of local development, including the new growth at Glenn Square and the various housing projects popping up throughout the neighborhood. In August alone, she said 29 of the 46 clients referred to the job center by the state were successful in finding employment. Pulou said there were more than 400 walk-ins that month, and about 10 of them came back to tell her that they’d found work, too.

“You just see the growth, the positive changes,” she said. “New businesses, new homes, just a new look.”

In her eyes, everything is connected in one way or another. With all of the new housing, neighbors seem to be growing closer together. Pulou said more and more people seem to be carpooling to work. Others show up at the job center with a neighbor in tow.

“That’s how friendly people have gotten with each other,” she said. “That’s wonderful to hear.”

The new housing is creating its own job opportunities, too. Sitting in her office, Pulou recalled how two job center case managers had recently gone outside for a smoke break when they happened to meet a foreman for one of the nearby construction sites. They chatted, and he mentioned he had several job openings. Those opportunities were promptly passed down to the clients at the Nine Star job center, Pulou said.

“With new employers coming to town, new construction — homes being built — just a whole new atmosphere. Mountain View isn’t how it used to be portrayed, and you just feel that all around,” she said. “You feel welcome.”

Knight said she feels it, too. She looks forward to building her future here.

“I’ve grown up in Mountain View; I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she said.

Knight said working at the Bass Pro outpost gives her the chance to build a better life for herself and her kids in the neighborhood in which she’s lived for most of her life. She said she has her sights set on a newly constructed Cook Inlet Housing Authority home. She dreams of upgrading from an apartment and finding a bigger space for her kids to grow up.

“I want to be able to get my own house,” she said.

Just a few months ago, a house seemed more like a distant fantasy. Now, she said each paycheck from the new job at the neighborhood mall helps bring her a little bit closer to her goal.

“There’s always room to grow,” Knight said.

This story is part of an eight-part series sponsored by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. Click here for more information.

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