Take a walk down Mountain View Drive and you’ll pass storefronts battered by decades of use, sleek new commercial buildings and multiplexes still under construction. Ronald Pickles has watched the streetscape shift for decades. There’s one thing that remains unchanged.
“There’s always been business in Mountain View,” said Pickles, sitting in his windowed upstairs office at Price Busters Pawn Shop on a clear, cold January afternoon. Before the shopping center and the new housing developments and the office space there was Midnight Sun Boat Company. For decades, Pickles’ father sold marine equipment “in Alaska, to Alaskans, by Alaskans.” The business occupied a big warehouse on North Bragaw Street, just across the road from Brewster’s, and kept surplus wares in the basement of an old grocery store on Mountain View Drive. Back then, Brewster’s was a bustling clothing and footwear store filled with denim-packed shelves and the smell of leather. Old man Brewster would serve you himself if he was in the store, Pickles says. Down the street, there were restaurants, secondhand shops, even a post office. A local A&W kept two lions in cages outside the restaurant, and Pickles remembers hearing their roars at night. All those things are gone now. The A&W closed years ago. So did the post office, the burger joint and the secondhand shops. Brewster’s, which shut its doors in 2005 after more than half a century in business, is currently an empty shell of a building awaiting demolition and redevelopment. The warehouse across the street is now home to the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, transformed by vibrant exterior murals. The grocery store around the corner is now a Samoan church. A modern-looking building houses a credit union and a police substation next door. These days, Mountain View’s commercial corridor is a mix of past, present and future, where investment builds on a foundation laid by longtime local business owners. While new businesses are drawn by opportunity, some of the neighborhood’s oldest entrepreneurs say they’ve yet to see lasting change. Pickles’ pawnshop has done business in Mountain View for nearly 25 years. At Price Busters, rows of racks and shelves hold tools, electronics, musical instruments, books and movies and other goods, displayed under bright overhead lights. The back wall is lined with rifles propped in a neat row. A white terrier lays curled in a dog bed on the front counter. Like other local businesses, Price Busters stands to gain from the new housing developments popping up around the neighborhood. Mountain View residents make up an important part of its customer base. “We do quit a bit of business with the locals,” Pickles said. He offers small loans at cheaper rates than most chain shops, counsels customers to be careful when pawning and doesn’t offer payday advances because he believes they go “too deep into customers’ pockets.” “Cash for quality items,” reads the big sign outside the two-story green building. Pickles himself worked in the neighborhood long before he founded Price Busters more than two decades ago. He watched his father’s business thrive for years, and worked at the now-gone Mountain View Pawn and Big Three Traders before opening the doors at his own shop in 1991. He operated out of a commercial building across the street from the Mountain View Car Wash for nine years. Business was good. When the property was sold, Pickles looked for a new home for Price Busters and decided to stay in Mountain View. It was the place he knew best. “I knew my business had grown here and I knew moving to another side of town would cause disruption in customer base,” Pickles said. “Financially, it made sense to stay in Mountain View: It allowed us to use the money that we had available and not finance.” At the time, commercial properties in Mountain View cost about half as much as anywhere else in town, and Pickles purchased an old building on Mountain View Drive in 2000. He rehabbed the property and reopened his business and has been there ever since, drawing customers from all over Anchorage. As other neighborhood businesses faded away, Price Busters stayed. Pickles remains reserved about new growth in the neighborhood: Investment doesn’t work if existing businesses are displaced and new businesses don’t stick around. Maybe this time will be different, he says. “I see there’s a lot of money being invested in Mountain View, and hopefully it will make a difference,” Pickles said. A block down the road, Mountain View entrepreneur Bill Hoopai is reinvesting in the neighborhood with a new German restaurant that opened its doors in late 2014. West Berlin – located at the intersection of Mountain View Drive and North Park Street – is not the first eatery to settle down in the corner space. There was La Casita, then Noble’s Diner then the Mountain View Diner, which closed in 2013. None of the other restaurants lasted. Hoopai has a plan he hopes will make the difference. There are no other German restaurants on this side of town and few others in Anchorage. Hoopai says opening the restaurant within a mile of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will allow him to cater to the tastes of military members once stationed in Germany. “That was a no-brainer, as far as the demographics,” said Hoopai one morning, sipping a cup of coffee and waiting for the lunch rush. Hoopai himself spent years overseas; serving with the U.S. Air Force in Germany until 1975. After he left the service he spent a few more years abroad, working to rebuild the German economy and eating the hearty German food he’d grown fond of. Decades later, he named his new restaurant about a place that no longer exists. “A lot of people don’t understand what it means — I think a lot of people forgot that there was a wall around West Berlin,” he said. “It’s become, like, this once-upon-a-time fairy tale story.” While the divided city is no more, West Berlin restaurant evokes a kind of old-world nostalgia. German music plays over the speakers, and the sunlight pouring through the windows casts warm pools of light over the dark wood tables and chairs. On the wall near the front door, framed photographs in black-and-white and sepia depict German scenes from years past: the Berlin Airlift, and children kneeling on the ground with their toy airplanes. “I haven’t been back, and now I don’t want to go back because it’s not the same anymore,” Hoopai said. “It’s not the West Berlin that I know.”
Instead, he hopes to recreate a bit of the old feeling in his new restaurant. He sees it as a place for the working class; a place that serves a nice steak and a glass of wine with linen table settings; an elegant place at an affordable price. “That’s what I want to bring to this community, because they don’t have it yet,” said Hoopai, who lives in Mountain View within blocks of his restaurant. As he spoke, a group of uniformed U.S. Air Force members made there way into the restaurant and settled down around a long table. West Berlin isn’t Hoopai’s first neighborhood eatery. He once operated Hula Hands, a popular local Hawaiian restaurant now owned by his sister. When Hoopai was approached by the Anchorage Community Land Trust about opening up shop in the organization’s vacant building on Mountain View Drive, he says he decided to give the restaurant business another shot. Hoopai says he’s watched changes in the neighborhood’s commercial landscape for years. “I see a lot of investment coming in, a lot of private investment coming in, a lot of nonprofits coming in and helping to restore this side of town,” he said. The two mixed-use buildings that line the road just across the street from his restaurant weren’t there when he first came to the neighborhood. Neither were many of the other new businesses. The development is a boon for Mountain View, he says, but there’s still work left to be done. “It needs a revitalization, it really does,” Hoopai said of the neighborhood he calls home. Things are moving in the right direction, though. Hoopai says he sees the signs. The bustling credit union down the street is one of them. “I do really give credit to Credit Union 1 for coming in,” he said. “I’m really happy that they’re here: It helps the community – a lot.” The branch, which opened on the corner of North Bragaw Street and Mountain View Drive in 2010, was the first financial institution to come into the neighborhood in about 20 years. Chrissy Bell, Credit Union 1’s vice president of culture and communications, says the Mountain View branch is one of the statewide credit union’s busiest. Development was facilitated by ACLT, which previously owned the corner property, and Bell said opening for business in the neighborhood “has nothing but a positive effect for us.” She says the credit union made the decision to come to Mountain View after identifying a strong need in the neighborhood; that it hoped to “inspire positive change and social progress.” Since then, the branch has maintained a staff of about 13 employees and seen steady business. The building is located next to one of Anchorage’s busiest bus stops and Mountain View’s largest grocery store. New housing continues to spring up in the neighborhood around it. And five years in, things aren’t slowing down for the local credit union. “Honestly, Mountain View has continued to really exceed our expectations,” Bell said. Just a few streets east, Hoopai hopes his latest endeavor will find the same kind of success. Eventually, he says, the combination of commercial momentum and residential development in the neighborhood will pay off. “I’m sure, it’s going to show,” Hoopai said. “Sooner or later it’s going to show.” At Price Busters, Pickles says it’s important to take the long view. Too many people think about what they can get today, he says, but that’s no recipe for success. “It’s just a matter of having the knowledge and taking the time to look at the big picture,” he said, leaning back in his chair. That’s what he tells people about pawning: Look at the big picture. The same goes for business. The neighborhood’s last independent pawnbroker has seen more than a few businesses disappear because of poor planning. It takes more than an injection of new investment to cultivate a sustainable and successful commercial climate. There’s no “build it and they will come,” Pickles said: You have to entice each and every customer, and then work to keep them around. When Price Busters first opened for business, Pickles and his wife spent 10 years running the shop with only limited part-time help. It was exhausting work and there were a couple of times when Pickles found himself stretched pretty thin. It was worth it, though, because he was able to save enough money to buy his Mountain View Drive property with only minimal financing. Now, he tells his wife they’re five, maybe seven years out from retirement. He says the neighborhood needs more private enterprise – he’s seen too many old businesses sell out and disappear. He says it needs more small business owners who know how to carve out a lasting niche for themselves. As for the redevelopment? “It is what it is – it’s gonna happen,” he said. In 2007, the mixed-use buildings owned by Cook Inlet Housing Authority popped up next door and across the road. Last summer, CIHA began work on a row of new homes on the lot directly across the street from Price Busters. Surrounded by growth, Pickles remains skeptical. But maybe he’s wrong, he says. Maybe all the investment is about to come together for the neighborhood in a lasting and meaningful way. He feels more optimistic about West Berlin – owned by a veteran restaurateur – than he did about the eateries preceding it. At West Berlin, Hoopai agrees: All the new investment in Mountain View has still to realize its full potential. “Right now, it’s in that stage where it hasn’t come to fruition yet,” Hoopai said. With the right combination of old business and new, it will. This story is part of an eight-part series sponsored by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. Click here for more information.
Categories: Working in Mt. View