Dermot Cole's May 8th, 2005 article
Dennis Wise demonstrates again how to build a community
DENNIS WISE has done more than anyone in a concrete way to improve the lives of people struggling to survive hard times in Fairbanks.
He continues to break new ground, expanding on that record of generosity in his hometown.
Wise built the Fairbanks Community Food Bank in 1999, and he stepped forward more than five years ago to rescue the Fairbanks Rescue Mission with a new building.
Now he is about to do the same for the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, while also giving a great boost to the Resource Center for Parents and Children.
A Wise crew, led by Dave Sears, has started work in South Fairbanks on two major projects for the summer. One is an addition to the food bank on 26th Avenue. Just across the street, workers are also putting in a foundation for a new 51,000-square-foot building.
This latest multi-million-dollar gift to the community is to house the shelter providing temporary living quarters to abused women and their children in Fairbanks. In addition, the resource center is going to be under the same roof, providing services to fight child abuse and strengthen families.
The new facility will allow the two agencies to move out of inadequate buildings and improve their services by early next year.
The second floor of the building is to be a shelter with a 22 apartments and other rooms, while the agencies are to have administrative offices, counseling rooms and meeting space on the ground floor.
The managers of the two organizations have worked with Wise for more than a year, developing a customized plan for a building that will be efficient and affordable to operate, they say.
Wise, 64, grew up in Fairbanks and began his career as a plumber in the 1960s. When he became a contractor he changed the face of Fairbanks, undertaking myriad projects that have spanned the decades.
He built more apartments all over town, including those at Wedgewood Manor, Sophie Plaza and Jillian Square, as well as dozens of warehouses and other buildings.
Wise isn't one to call press conferences to get his name in the paper or his face on TV. He is not looking for publicity or praise, but he deserves a big thank- you from everyone in Fairbanks.
He said he is trying to follow lessons taught by his mother, the late Edna Wise.
"I really enjoy doing it, and it's probably something that Mom left with all of us kids, to try to help others," he said. "We're very proud of her, and we'd like to continue something like she did over the years."
Wise said he can afford to do these projects because of the success he had as a builder and developer in Phoenix in the 1990s. He bought 1.5 million square feet of office space and constructed an equal amount "at the right time."
"The only thing I'm doing now is that we built a couple of hundred apartments in Bellingham, Wash.," he said in a phone interview Friday from Arizona.
Wise said that building facilities to improve social services in Fairbanks is only half of the equation.
"There's a whole other round of volunteers that make these things work over the years," he said.
Those volunteers should get the credit for keeping vital community services in operation, he said.
Wise said the women's shelter and the resource center are phenomenal organizations, and he's glad to be of assistance.
In speaking about Wise, the leaders of the nonprofit organizations spare no superlatives about the man who was named the leading Alaska philanthropist in 2002.
"I think Dennis truly cares about this community. When he hears of a true need or a way that he can fill the gap, he's the person that steps in there and does it," said Brenda Stanfill, executive director of the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living.
"He is the most gracious person I have ever worked with," said Coleen Turner, executive director of the resource center.
"He's really increased the capacity of the community to deal with social services. As a builder, he's doing what he does best," said Samantha Castle-Kirstein of the food bank.
Wise is now living Outside in Arizona and Washington, but he keeps in daily contact with his crew in Fairbanks and is often on the phone.
"It's pretty much all day, every day," he said.
"We've had lots of cooperation from government agencies," he added. "It's gone very smoothly."
A Web site has been set up with daily pictures of construction, http://www.wiseprojects.org, which allows Wise and others to see what is happening. A Web cam is expected to be set up in the next week or so, said Anne Weaver, who posts the photos on the site and is working as an assistant to Wise.
The new building for the women's shelter will replace an old structure on Ninth Avenue that has been expanded over the past 20 years from five to 14 bedrooms and is always full.
Most of the time, there are 35 to 42 people at the shelter, about half of them children. The rooms are small, and there are often two or three families in a room. Those staying at the shelter have to share four bathrooms. Many people choose to leave because the crowding makes them uncomfortable.
The new shelter is to have 22 apartments that will comfortably house at least 75 people on a temporary basis, Stanfill said. The 18 family apartments will have private bathrooms, while the four apartments for single women will have a bathroom for each pair of rooms.
The center has received a $1 million grant from the Denali Commission to help furnish its part of the building, while the resource center is still raising funds.
Stanfill said the goal is to create a "home away from home" atmosphere for the women and children and help them get back to a more stable living situation.
She said domestic violence is a serious problem in Fairbanks, one that many people don't talk much about, but the proof is in the constant demand for space at the shelter. Hardly a day goes by when a woman does not show up at the door, seeking temporary refuge.
Wise said his goal is that when the shelter is complete, it will be the nicest facility of its kind anywhere.