Though JEDC has worked on its Cluster Initiative for over a year, the summit marked the point where the process of information gathering, problem solving and crafting creative ideas transitioned into economic development action.
The day-long event at Centennial Hall featured progress reports from working groups within the Development Council’s Cluster Initiative. The groups are focused on three developed industries — ocean products, forest products and visitor products — and the emerging industry of renewable energy.
JEDC Executive Director Brian Holst said he was pleased with the turnout and the work done at the summit.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Holst said. “Our goal was to help industry groups identify their priorities. They’ve done that. They’ve identified a series of initiatives. They also had a platform to share those initiatives with other (Cluster Initiative) groups, with business leaders outside of their initiatives. And, very importantly, it created a venue to share with a larger community of state and federal agencies. This process is all about active collaboration, and we’ve achieved that.”
Holst said that he is now most interested to see implemented the ideas created in the four working groups over the previous year and refined at the summit.
“That is how we’re going to measure success, when real change happens that benefits communities here in southeast Alaska,” Holst said.
Holst said he saw a lot of optimism from attendees. While economic development planning is nothing new, some of those processes always achieve the results that are expected, Holst said.
“I think there is optimism because of some the initial results that we are seeing, that this is a process that is inclusive and that does produce results,” Holst said.
JEDC’s Cluster Initiative process was born out of a request for just such a strategic economic development plan. Instead of submitting a proposal for a standard plan, Holst and JEDC adopted a cluster development approach, a model used successfully in California’s Silicon Valley, the wine industry in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys and the Oregon Business Plan project.
Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski appeared before the summit by video-conference. Begich said that Southeast Alaska has lots of resources within the Tongass National Forest, but that it is difficult to develop those resources due to conflicting interest as to the proper use and purpose of a National Forest. He made the comparison to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Summit organizers gave several opportunities for attendees to work with the cluster groups to identify the roadblocks and opportunities of economic development in the Southeast. In the afternoon, the larger summit broke into smaller groups to discuss issues that cut across and affected all four working group issues.
One group discussed southeast infrastructure with regards to road access, the Roadless Rule, low-cost energy, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and ferry and air transportation. Group moderator Eden Larsen of the Alaska Forward Initiative encouraged her group to focus its discussion on “what would most advance business and the economic results of that business,” Larsen said. She said to avoid focusing too much on the roadblocks.
“I encourage you to not think through all of the objections, but have the courage to say ‘here’s what will work for us to drive an economy,” Larsen said.
Wayne Stevens of the United Way moderated the Perception of Industry group. Stevens said that perceptions are difficult to describe because they are always changing. He used the example of the Individual Fisheries Quota. At first some in the fishing industry were skeptical of the idea. While is still has its detractors, he said now it is now seen as a positive change by most commercial fishers.
“It’s an evolution of idea,” Stevens said.
It was a lot of work, and it took a lot of trust for business to work with the Forest Service.
“They would proceed to put us out of business, so we were very hesitant and very nervous. But I think that is the hard work, to overcome those fears,” he said. “Through the process we have come to appreciate each other more. As we understand each other better our perceptions change, but it is work. You can’t just stay in your office and badmouth them all day.
In the Education and Workforce Development group, Anthony Lindoff of Haa Aani LLC said he would like to see more education directed toward small business entrepreneurs. Now, he said, the focus is on large industry, like mining.
People in villages would like to live in, work in their home communities, Lindoff said, but a lack of opportunity forces villagers to leave home and take jobs where they exist.
“Give them opportunities so we have more marine biologists come in here and be the champion and leaders for the nascent mariculture industry. I don’t know how many marine biologists are coming out of these rural areas and I would wager that there aren’t any,”
Carolyn Thomason, owner of Wood Cuts, a small lumber mill and custom cabin builder in Thorne Bay said educators should address the particular needs of each industry.
“People who want to be fishermen don’t need a school to teach them how to bait a hook, they need training how to run a business,” Thomason said. “I need somebody who can read a tape measure and can add three-fourths and seven-eights and not come out with two feet.”
Thomason summed up the mood of the summit, where “champions” take “action” to develop the economies of their communities and the region. “There is a lot of work ahead for Southeast Alaska” and a lot of opportunity, Thomason said. “To me that is the exciting part,” she said.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.