By Kirsten Swann
It was Dungeons and Dragons night at Bosco’s and the parking lot was packed. Inside the big, brightly lit comic store, customers browsed aisles filled with books and games, and the back room buzzed with activity as players gathered around half a dozen tables.
A lot has changed since the popular Spenard comic shop first went into business more than 30 years ago, said Bosco’s owner John Weddleton. Not just new games and comics. There was a time, years ago, when the shop hired a security guard to protect the parking lot from pimps and dealers, he said. Eventually, the recession ended and so did the fights outside the store. Now, he said, “It’s a thousand times better.”
It didn’t happen by accident.
“The way the world works, I’ve learned over the years, the system works better with groups,” Weddleton said, sitting in a front room at his busy shop one March evening.
Enter the Spenard Chamber of Commerce, one of the few neighborhood business associations in Anchorage. Co-founded in 2011 by Weddleton, now an Anchorage Assemblyman, and longtime Spenard resident Mark Butler, who also co-founded the neighborhood farmers’ market, the chamber aims “to cultivate Spenard’s status as Anchorage’s vibrant shopping, dining and entertainment district with an abundant variety of successful independent businesses in a safe and fun environment,” according to its mission.
“Our goal was to advocate for the businesses of Spenard,” Butler said.
There are plenty for which to advocate. Butler calls the neighborhood the muscle-powered sports capital of Alaska for its plentiful outdoor equipment retailers, yoga studios and sport shops. Then there are the bars and eateries, consignment shops, salons, art studios, markets and miscellaneous other stores. At last count, Spenard was home to more than 500 independent local businesses, Butler said, not to mention the fast-food restaurants and larger chains.
Today, approximately 150 of those neighborhood businesses belong to the Spenard Chamber of Commerce, Butler said. Filled with builders, bikers, printers, poets, florists, artists, developers and retailers, the chamber’s Board of Directors has been as eclectic as the neighborhood itself.
The group first convened seven years ago in support of a major reconstruction project at the north end of Spenard Road between Hillcrest Drive and Benson Boulevard. Wider sidewalks and bike paths would help turn the whole area into a more walkable shopping district, Butler said. He thought it would be good for business. Walking from one end of Spenard Road to another, knocking on doors, they found other neighbors agreed. The newly formed Spenard Chamber of Commerce made it official.
“I think it gave us a bigger voice — a unified voice that wanted progress; that wanted improvements,” said Barb Smart, owner of Alaska Leather and chair of the Spenard Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors since its inception.
Business has evolved since the motorcycle parts and accessories store first opened in 1979, Smart said. Box stores came to town and e-commerce changed the whole game. An upgraded commercial corridor could help attract more customers to brick-and-mortar businesses throughout the neighborhood, she said.
“Walkability is a huge thing,” she said.
After a full construction season in 2017, the bond-funded renovation at the north end of Spenard Road is now in its final stages, according to the Municipality of Anchorage Project Management and Engineering Department.
Longtime businesses and residents hope new private investment will follow.
“I think when it looks better, more people will come here, people will start fixing their buildings,” Weddleton said.
Besides the road project, the chamber has advocated for the redevelopment of neglected and derelict property throughout Spenard, from the old National Guard Armory formerly at the intersection of Spenard and International Airport Road to the site of the old gas station at Spenard and 36th Avenue. Today one site is valet-serviced car park; the other is a mixed-use residential and retail development. The Spenard Corridor Plan is another priority, according to the chamber.
At the end of the day, more business is good for everyone in the neighborhood, Butler said. That’s what the Spenard Chamber of Commerce hopes to encourage.
Butler points to expansion by existing business and new shops popping up along the length of Spenard Road in recent years, from Hulin Alaska Design to Enlighten Alaska to Bambino’s Baby Food and others.
“To me, the true test is where the entrepreneurs are: are they investing or are they fleeing?” Butler said.
In Spenard, he said, the answer speaks for itself.