Fireworks. July 3, 2021.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell has a blowout Fourth of July event every year. The celebrations are put on by the Chamber of Commerce, which has been plagued by financial woes. Organizers say they need more support from the local government. But Wrangell’s borough assembly is reluctant to set aside money until they have more details. 

Listen to the audio version of this story here.

Board members and staff of Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce say the organization has been hit with a perfect financial storm. Its main means of fundraising – raffles and other events leading up to the Fourth of July – fell flat last year. Its backup source of funding is pull tabs sales. And those have plummeted too. There’s nothing left to offset a bad year.

“Our average amount of money in our pull tabs account is around $30,000. And right now we’re sitting at $367,” outgoing Chamber Executive Director Brittani Robbins told Wrangell’s borough assembly at a meeting on May 1. “We used to deliver pull tabs on a weekly basis, all three bars calling asking for pull tabs – three to five games a week. We have sold three games since January. One of our bars, which is our top buyer, was down over 50%, which was a $140,000 loss for the chamber.”

Chamber officials say last year’s Fourth of July celebration cost over $110,000. And as the holiday looms again, board members and staff are seeking funds from local individuals and businesses

The Chamber is also asking for the borough to help fund this year’s festivities and avoid further losses. But some borough officials say the request warrants more discussion.

Wrangell’s borough government already makes a yearly contribution to the Chamber – last year, that payment increased by about 15% – it increased by $4,000 to a total of $27,000. But the Chamber is requesting an additional $25,000 for this year’s Fourth of July. Initially, the chamber was asking for up to $75,000 worth of help for anything Fourth of July related. That didn’t fly with the borough’s economic development board. The board initially suggested up to $25,000 as a rebate for some very specific purchases. It couldn’t include wages or prize payouts.

The Chamber’s volunteer board president, Bill Burr, spoke in favor of the additional funding at the early May assembly meeting. 

“The Wrangell Chamber of Commerce is working very hard to not just say, ‘We’re in dire straits. And please just help us out as we can stay the same,’” Burr said. “We are actively looking to once again reach the level of running in the black and providing a Fourth of July that brings in a large number of people.”

The Chamber is trying to make ends meet on its own. It’s already implemented a system of new fees for the coming Fourth of July, and it’s looking for other ways to make money, including a cash raffle with a prize of $10,000. Still, its raffle has run into some trouble. Though it wasn’t public knowledge at the time, the raffle ran for around nine months without fulfilling some state requirements for charitable gaming.

Burr told Wrangell’s assembly the Chamber hasn’t made ends meet since 2016.

“In the short term, we run the risk of not being able to pay bills, including the upcoming fireworks,” Burr stated. “We’ve made substantial effort to pull back how much we’re spending, including the amount the fireworks itself has as a budget. This is something that we have to look at, it is a large expense. So we are trying to offset some of those costs. But we need help. And we need to run in the black. But to get there, we are asking for the assembly to see our efforts and the state that we’re in so that we can pull off this Fourth of July and start building for the future.”

At the early May meeting, Borough Manager Jeff Good sounded skeptical about the idea of increasing funding. He wanted to know how the Chamber spent the borough’s annual $27,000 contribution last year, and how it plans to get back on solid financial footing in the long-term. 

“We do have quite a few concerns as far as to where the chamber is kind of moving forward, even past the Fourth of July and even in the next Fourth of July,” Good told Assembly members.

Assembly member Dave Powell also had concerns. Powell was among the elected officials who said they were uncomfortable approving a funding request without a public hearing. 

“Anytime we give money away in our budget process, we have a public hearing for the Chamber, KSTK and the Senior Center, those are the ones that we fund,” Powell said. But the funding request came at a special assembly meeting, without the usual public hearing process. “And I have a serious problem with that,” Powell continued.

The assembly voted to postpone considering the funding request until its regular meeting on May 23. 

Chamber officials were frustrated – they’re on a tight timeline for getting supplies to the island for the Fourth. The volunteer board called an emergency Chamber meeting the following day, on May 2. 

Assembly member Powell attended that special meeting, speaking as a Chamber member, not an elected official. 

“What constitutes an emergency to other people does not always constitute an emergency to the city,” Powell said of the assembly’s decision to postpone funding, “And we have to follow a process and it wasn’t followed.”

He said the list of expenses he’d seen from the previous Fourth of July were concerning.

“I was floored,” Powell said. “A lot of money was spent for swag and T-shirts and the party – for the street dance. I mean, with those three items was $18,000. And if you don’t have that money, don’t spend it. I don’t understand why that was spent. When we – and I’m gonna say we because I’m a chamber member  – didn’t have the money to spend it. I mean, that was to be honest, that’s mismanagement.”

Robbins, the Chamber director, joined the meeting by video call. She and other board members had strong feelings about local officials’ reticence to allocate more tax money to the Fourth, when it’s such a big economic driver in town. Robbins says she’s requested numbers from the borough finance director to back up that claim. 

“The amount of money that the city gets off of the events that we went on, as two people and a board full of full-time employees at other places,” Robbins said, “There’s got to be a kickback. We get nothing back from the city. The $27,000 contribution is laughable.”

In a later interview, Robbins expanded on that sentiment. She says those big events bring a lot of outside tax money into the community – and that helps keep the city going.

“As taxpayers, that outside tax coming in, that helps with you know, these [rate] raises we’ve seen recently could have been a lot bigger, that sort of thing,” Robbins said, “So we really need to keep those events going not only for that, but for that feeling that we all have here in Wrangell of family, like we have these super cool events that you don’t see other places. And that won’t happen if we don’t have the funds to do it.”

Still, Robbins does agree with Powell – the Chamber’s financial priorities have been askew. 

“It’s pretty shocking, the amount of money that’s spent on certain things for the Fourth of July,” she says. “And you know, we were just showing the budget and said, ‘This is what we do every year.’ So that’s what we did, because we didn’t know what we were doing.”

She says when she came on board in 2021, she felt thrown into the deep end. She kept up the status quo, which she says was a mistake. 

“We had little to no training,” Robbins explains, “It was: ‘These are the bills we pay. Here’s the budgets. There’s a folder. Here’s a binder. Good luck.’ So we did – just like with the royalty race, we did what was always done in the past. Now we see it’s not sustainable. We see it with our eyes and our figures. It’s not sustainable. So what are we going to do?”

In the past, she says, the fundraising flurry known as the Fourth of July royalty race brought in a lot of money. But regulations changed and local interest in running the race waned, and she says the Chamber needs to start looking for other ways to keep the festivities alive. 

“I’m not saying let’s get rid of the royalty race, but we need to start looking at other ways to fund those events,” she adds.

Robbins has a lot of other ideas for how to shore up the Chamber, including asking for more sponsorships beyond the Fourth of July festivities. She says in the past, cruise lines and many local businesses haven’t been approached to participate financially. But that could change.

And the Chamber is trimming everything it can. Robbins told Wrangell’s borough assembly at that special meeting in early May that she’d cut down on working hours at the Chamber to try and save money.

“I took a second job, I now work at four o’clock in the morning every day, managing and running and baking and cooking over at Sweet Tides,” Robbins told assembly members. She’s a member of the assembly, but spoke as the Chamber director. “And then still bookkeeping and helping make large, big decisions as Luana learns to take over the position of executive director because we cannot afford our employees. And that’s not an easy thing for me to do.”

Robbins told KSTK the Chamber just can’t afford two staff members, so the executive assistant Luana Wellons is now the executive director in training. Robbins will help out with bookkeeping and decisions until her successor feels ready. 

“And this is a way to help the chamber so that I can still be involved without taking a paycheck but still making money at the same time,” Robbins explains, “Because I do need an income. We all live on this island where everything’s crazy expensive.”

Eventually, she says, she’ll transition to volunteering at the Chamber. 

“I do love it here in this community, it means so much to me,” Robbins says, “And that’s why you won’t see me gone. I just won’t be getting paid,” she concludes with a laugh.

Wrangell’s assembly may decide whether or not to approve funding for the Chamber to run this year’s Fourth of July in the coming days. Regardless, many events for the upcoming holiday have already secured local sponsorships, which will help alleviate costs to the Chamber. And one high school junior candidate is signed up to run in the Fourth of July royalty fundraising race – a kickoff event is scheduled for early June. 

Wrangell’s Assembly will hold a public hearing on a potential $25,000 contribution to the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce at its meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 23. Anyone wishing to speak at the meeting can sign up on the “Persons to be Heard” sheet located at City Hall.

5/22: This article has been updated to correct the time of the Borough Assembly’s April 23 meeting.

Get in touch with KSTK at or (907) 874-2345.