JEDC finds economic silver lining in Juneau’s private sector

Annual report discovers city has become more affordable as residents leave

Cruise ship visitors gather for their tours on the Seawalk on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. A bright spot for Juneau’s economy is the record number of tourists to Juneau this season.

If you’re looking for optimism in Juneau’s economic picture, it helps to look at the private sector, a new report from the Juneau Economic Development Council indicates.

 

This week, the JEDC released its annual “Economic Indicators and Outlook” report for Juneau and Southeast Alaska. It’s the annual physical for Juneau’s economy — how things are growing (or not) and how they have changed over the past year.

You already know the bad news: Alaska remains in a recession, and Juneau isn’t immune. The city’s population fell last year, so did the number of jobs, and so did total wages.

The report does have a silver lining. For that, you have to look at the private sector.

“I would say the JEDC continues to be optimistic about the resilience of the private-sector economy in Juneau,” said Brian Holst, executive director of the JEDC. “We see across the board that our private sector, which is now the largest sector of Juneau’s economy, continues to be solid.”

With the cut to the Permanent Fund Dividend (and thus less money circulating in the economy), City and Borough of Juneau finance director Bob Bartholomew had been expecting a hit to city sales tax figures, but that never happened, according to JEDC’s report. Mineral prices rose and Juneau’s two gold mines compensated for the loss.

Juneau is on pace for a record number of cruise-ship visitors this year (final figures will be available before the end of the month), and the number of tourism jobs is rising, even if the number of jobs overall is not.

“Because of our tourism industry, that helps the entrepreneurship in Juneau,” Holst said, pointing out that the availability and regularity of the tourist flow encourages new businesses.

“Creative people will respond to this market that comes to Juneau every year,” he said.

And despite the job losses (178 from 2015 to 2016), “The unemployment rate in Juneau continues to be low. It’s at the same rate as the national rate and well below the rest of the state of Alaska,” Holst said.

Having fewer people in Juneau appears to be making things more affordable for those who remain, JEDC found. The median price of a single-family home fell 1.5 percent, and the average rental price for an apartment fell 4 percent, to $1,256 per month.

“What we have seen is an affordability improvement,” said Eva Bornstein, who compiled the statistics in the report.

Apartment vacancy rates rose significantly, but are still below the statewide average, indicating the possibility of further rental price declines.

As those costs fell, the average per-person income rose. Per-capita income — the amount of money earned by all residents, divided by the number of residents — rose by about $600 between 2015 and 2016.

At $62,694 per person, it remains above the national and state averages.

While local businesses are boosting the economy, Juneau’s fate is still largely in the hands of the Alaska Legislature. More than a third of Juneau’s jobs are government jobs, and more than half of those are state government jobs. Government workers are among Juneau’s best-paid laborers, and cuts to government work have big effects on the local economy.

The Legislature has failed to address a multibillion-dollar deficit, and lawmakers have not determined whether more cuts or new taxes are the solution. For Juneau, the better choice is obvious.

“If declines in the state don’t materialize, if we have plateaued, then we’re optimistic looking forward,” Holst said.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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