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Fire jump-starts construction season.

Within minutes of reports of fire at the Denali Princess Lodge, company managers were planning for reconstruction. With tourists arriving this month, builders are working around the clock to rebuild.

Interior Alaska's construction season got an unexpectedly fast start this year, as the Denali Princess Lodge was partially destroyed by fire March 20 and a massive rebuilding effort began within 24 hours.

The leadership of Princess Tours, which owns the 282-room hotel on the Parks Highway, about a mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park, has vowed to open the lodge as planned on May 14. That decision has meant a huge boost for Fairbanks-area contractors, tradesmen and building material suppliers, as the tour company quickly committed millions of dollars to keep its season intact.

"We could build it more inexpensively if we weren't working 24 hours a day," says Dean Brown, Princess Tours' president. Their self-imposed deadline is to have the facility up and running to accommodate the first cruise ship passengers with package tours, he says, adding that Denali is a key component of the company's tours.

"Without a room at Denali for them, we can't provide their whole trip," Brown says. "If we don't have a room for them at Denali, then they don't visit Anchorage," or the rest of the state, with broad economic consequences, he says, for Princess and for all the towns the package tours visit.

The blaze, reported by an early morning passerby, is believed to have started with an oil-fired furnace in the main lobby. Hotel staff had recently arrived to prepare the complex for the tourist season, but the sprinkler system was not yet operational.

Three of the lodge's 11 buildings - including the main lobby, restaurant and office and two wings of guest rooms - were destroyed. Don Rosenberger, Princess Tours' vice president for rail operations and hotel construction, says the fire affected 156 guest rooms. The three buildings were connected by breezeways, and Brown says that part of the design will not be rebuilt as it may have helped the fire spread.

The company has the benefit of good timing in a certain sense: It already had the management team in place for another major construction effort, the $20 million-plus Mount McKinley Princess Lodge going up just north of Talkeetna. David Soderland, a Fairbanks native and projects engineer for Princess, was on the scene within 10 minutes of the report of fire, Rosenberger says. By the end of the day, Soderland had plans on paper for a rapid reconstruction effort.

"This incredible gear-up wouldn't have been possible without having that management team in place," Brown says. The first decision was to rebuild based on the same design, Brown says, allowing the effort to start immediately.

Rosenberger was on the scene while the rubble was still smoking, and the management team was meeting with Fairbanks contractors and signing deals by Saturday, just two days after the fire. Crews were cleaning up that afternoon.

Working around the clock, a crew of about 130 cleared the debris, prepared earthwork, poured new foundations and had framed up to the second floor on one wing in less than two weeks. "We were very fortunate that this is a kind of quiet time in construction in Alaska," Rosenberger says. Also, of the 14 or 15 contracts the company signed for the reconstruction, many went to contractors that had worked on the lodge when it was originally built in 1987 and were familiar with the work.

The fire also came at a time when Fairbanks suppliers had stock on hand for the season, and an eager labor pool was ready to go to work. "We received hundreds and hundreds of faxes from qualified people who wanted to come to work, and we just handed those over to the contractor," Rosenberger says.

"It's hard to say what the reconstruction's going to cost, exactly," Brown says, but the company's insurance adjuster estimated $10 million to $12 million without furniture or fixtures. "There were a lot of the complicated parts of the facility that were not damaged," Brown adds, including the water and wastewater plants and the laundry.

"I think the company overall works very well in a crisis," Rosenberger says, with well-developed contingency plans and emergency management teams and the experience as a large tour operator with rapid start-ups.

"Before mid-summer, things will be pretty well wrapped up," Rosenberger says.
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Title Annotation:fire on Denali Princess Lodge gives boost to Fairbanks, Alaska-area contractors
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1996
Words:732
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