By Kevin Klott
Eklutna Inc. turns one asset into another by converting its gravel pits into residential developments. Business
strategies like this have helped Eklutna Inc. grow every year since 2007, said CEO Curtis McQueen, who oversees
between 30 and 40 employees, depending on the season.
Photo courtesy Eklutna Inc.
A story that symbolizes Eklutna Inc.’s steady rise to success in construction involves Curtis McQueen talking to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson aircraft personnel, who flew over Eklutna land one day and later asked him, “What’s going on? What are you guys doing?”
“Well, we’re developing,” McQueen said, explaining what they witnessed was the development of one of Eklutna’s massive gravel pits.
Working as Eklutna Inc.’s chief executive officer for the past 10 years, McQueen has not only learned a thing or two about the development of land but also the development of telling the story of Eklutna Inc. Both development and storytelling are working hand-in-hand to help Anchorage’s largest private landowner become a major player in Alaska’s construction industry.
“Our land is in play on every infrastructure job from Muldoon to the Valley,” McQueen said. “It’s overwhelming for us sometimes.”
More than a thousand years ago, Anchorage was known as Dena’ina Country. It was home to the K’enaht’ana, the indigenous people of Knik Arm. Today these people are members of the Eklutna and Knik tribes. The government offices of Eklutna Native village, in North Anchorage just off the Glenn Highway, were established in 1961.
This particular chapter of Eklutna’s story — and its role in Alaska’s construction industry — began in 1972, a year after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, which granted land rights to 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 local village corporations. In 1971, the largest land claims settlement act in U.S. history gave rise to Eklutna Inc., a village corporation that gave the Dena’ina an opportunity to have a voice in meetings where important decisions were being made about the Municipality of Anchorage.
“We were an ancient player but new in the fact that we got the lands back,” McQueen said. “Immediately we came out of the chute in construction, supporting a lot of different contractors. Whether it was vertical (construction), utilities, power plants, powerlines, gas lines, roads, waterlines or fiber optic lines, we were instantly part of the conversation.”
In the early days of Eklutna Inc., its leadership preferred to sit on the sidelines, McQueen said. Once a deal was made for a long-term lease, it sat back and watched things play out. But these days that is no longer the case. Eklutna Inc. prides itself on being a diverse corporation that includes five subsidiaries: Eklutna Construction and Maintenance, Eklutna Services, Eklutna Real Estate Services, Eklutna Development Services, and Eklutna Sand and Gravel.
“Our long-term vision and mission was always to be at the table and build successful companies,” McQueen said.
The 167,000 acres Eklutna Inc. owns within Southcentral Alaska makes it the area’s largest private landowner. The area includes Eklutna, Peters Creek, Birchwood, Chugiak, Eagle River and parts of the Matanuska- Susitna Valley. The sand and gravel hidden inside these 167,000 acres makes it a sort of dreamland for the world of construction.
“When the Glenn Highway was built, when some of these interchanges were built, it was gravel on our land that was used by contractors,” McQueen said.
Eklutna Inc. and Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI) started working together again in 2006 to develop a sand and gravel partnership. It was a natural fit because Eklutna owns the surface land while CIRI owns the subsurface, according to ANCSA. Eklutna and CIRI opened Eklutna Pit Site 1 in May 2007. The two corporations managed it from a distance.
During the peak years of Eklutna Pit Site 1, which occurred between 2007 and 2012, it supplied North Anchorage road construction with 30 percent of its need for aggregate products. Usage included roads, overpasses, bridges, commercial and industrial pads, housing pads, asphalt, concrete products and land additions. It’s the only accessible sand and gravel mine in the
Municipality of Anchorage, making it a premier source for the market.
That market expanded in June when Eklutna Inc. opened a new sand and gravel pit in North Eagle River, which is estimated to have a 10- to 15-year reserve, McQueen said. At this pit, contractors can offload wet dirt or peat from trucks and fill those same trucks with gravel.
“It’s called a round robin,” McQueen said. “It makes the speed of a job finish sooner.”
Eklutna Inc. is using that dirt to shape the land so it can be used for future housing developments.
“It’s really starting to fit,” McQueen said.
When McQueen needed someone he could trust to effectively manage the North Eagle River site, he reached out to Dick Weldin, the former president of CIRI Services Corporation (CSC). Weldin’s work experience included laying pipe to build the trans-Alaska pipeline system from beginning to end, working in the sand and gravel pits of Palmer, and main taining his own construction business called Weldin Construction LLC.
“His resume was very valuable to us,” McQueen said.
Aside from what’s on paper, Weldin genuinely loves the process of exploring and extracting sand and gravel from the earth. Whether it’s the initial stage of the discovery, the setup, stripping, clearing, building roads or doing the layout, he enjoys the process of making it an efficient system.
“I probably would have paid them for me to do this,” Weldin laughed.
A crane owned by Eklutna Inc. is parked on Eklutna Lake Road during summer 2018 to remove the Eklutna River
Dam. Built in 1929 when Anchorage’s population stood at around 3,000 people, the Dena’ina people had no legal
authority to stop its construction. Today, however, Eklutna Inc. got the wrecking ball rolling to remove the dam.
CEO Curtis McQueen said the village of Eklutna would like to see all five species of salmon return to the river.
Photo Courtesy Eklutna Inc.
As the director of mining, Weldin assists Eklutna Inc. with identifying gravel sources and helping it reach clients. He said the people of Eklutna are blessed with owning land that was once covered by glaciers. As these glaciers expanded and receded, they left moraines consisting of gravel and till throughout Eklutna lands, which begin at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and run all the way into Palmer.
“We do have lenses of sand, but overall the gradation is just amazing,” Weldin said. “The sizing and the quality of it is about as good as it gets.
The average depth of overburden on all of Eklutna’s land is somewhere between a foot-and-a-half to 2 feet deep, which Weldin said is a wonderful combination.
“We don’t want to have just another gravel pit,” he said. “We want a gravel pit that is world class. We want to be a gravel pit that customers, clients, and truck drivers and everybody wants to use. We’re in the initial stages, but we’re off to a good start.”
Both the New Seward Highway and the Port of Anchorage projects in 2018 used gravel from the North Eagle River pit. It will also be used to build a new southbound bridge on the Glenn Highway that crosses over Eagle River.
Vertical construction stood as one of Eklutna Inc.’s main priorities when Bryce Hattenburg started working for Eklutna Services, one of the corporation’s four subsidiaries. That was five years ago. Since then, it has diversified in many ways.
“It’s exciting to see a vision,” said Hattenburg, mining operations manager for Eklutna Services.
Eklutna Inc.’s vision is more than just gravel. It also wants to play a major role in the long-term health of Anchorage’s people and places. Three examples include the construction of the new Ernie Turner Center, the removal of an abandoned diversion dam on the lower Eklutna River, and a blueprint to make more land available for new housing and schools in Eagle River.
“Eklutna Lake Road became a pretty exciting place for us this year,” McQueen said. “We had two projects within a mile of each other: the Ernie Turner and the 70-year-old dam.”
The Ernie Turner Center is a 16-bed facility for Alaska Natives and other Alaskans who are recovering from addiction. Eklutna Inc. sold the sixacre lot to the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) and used Eklutna Services as the general contractor. The building officially opened on Aug. 2.
Eklutna Services completed the Ernie Turner Center in summer 2018. The 16-bed facility on Eklutna Lake Road
is for Alaska Natives and other Alaskans who are struggling with addiction. Eklutna Inc. sold the six-acre lot to
Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
Photo Courtesy Eklutna Inc.
“We are very proud of the Ernie Turner Center,” McQueen said.
He is also proud of the yearlong work to remove the abandoned Eklutna Dam, which officially came down the same week the Ernie Turner Center opened. An open river will allow all five species of salmon to run up the Eklutna River, McQueen said.
Eklutna Inc. hired one of its construction companies to take the structure down.
“We finished on time and on budget,” he said. “It was a scary job — deep in the canyon and very dangerous. But not very many construction companies in Alaska can say they’ve taken down an old deadbeat dam.”
Not many, if any, can say they play a major role in the future housing market of Alaska’s biggest city either. Eklutna Inc. is turning its old gravel pits into housing developments. Neighborhoods such as Denaly Estates Subdivision, Eagle Ridge, Powder Ridge, Powder Reserve Tract, Thunderbird Heights and Powder View at Powder Reserve are touted as some of Anchorage’s finest residential developments, and they have been carefully crafted to attract families.
“Every time Anchorage does a study on land they always talk about North Anchorage,” McQueen said. “What Anchorage is going through now, like many modern cities, is tearing (down) old and rebuilding vertically, which is a great thing. But Alaskans love their yards.”
“The majority of home buyers are still looking for land. It’s something they can hand down to their kids,” he said.
McQueen stressed that Eklutna Inc. is not liquidating its land holdings. It’s taking strategic pieces of land and making that available to markets. It’s taking one asset, such as gravel, and converting it into
Eklutna Inc. is also not in the business of publicly promoting itself, McQueen said.
“Our culture is very private,” he said. “There was no word in the Eklutna culture for promoting oneself, marketing or bringing attention.
Rather than promoting itself, McQueen, who is Alaska Native, brags about Eklutna Inc. in traditional ways: by telling stories.
“We tell our whole story and people say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty special,’ ” McQueen said. “Our challenge is that we don’t tell it enough.”
Kevin Klott is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage