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Juneau indicators reveal constraints … and opportunities

Posted: October 23, 2011 - 12:07am

“Juneau es muy caro (expensive). Si?” asked my Spanish teacher as she aims to have us practice conversation. Immediately my classmates began to name expensive things in Juneau — casas, gasolina, electricidad, frutas. Having just attended a presentation on The 2011 Juneau and Southeast Economic Indicators, I knew this to be true. According to a report prepared by the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) it cost 39 percent more to live in Juneau than the average U.S. city. The cost of housing is 66 percent more expensive, the biggest cost. Not only is housing costly but it is in short supply, particularly for rent. A 5 percent vacancy rate is considered to reflect a balanced housing market. Juneau’s homeowner’s vacancy rate is 1.4 percent and the vacancy rate for homes varied between zero and 1.9 percent. JEDC calculates that we need at least 360 housing units to reach the healthy market rate of 5 percent.

This is countered by some impressive statistics regarding employment and our quality of life. Most important to a thriving community, overall employment and payroll were both up in 2010. Between mining, health care, and government, Juneau gained 361 jobs. Thanks to the better prices for salmon and halibut, fishing also grew with commercial fishermen taking home $57 million more than last year. Although the payroll of Juneau residents is up overall, so is the disparity between wages earned by men and wages earned by women. Nationally and statewide men earn more than women, 29 percent and 37 percent respectively. Unfortunately, the gender gap is even wider in Juneau with wages for men being on average 42 percent higher compared to Juneau women.

Did you know Juneau is the healthiest community in Alaska? According to the County Health Rankings that compared 23 cities and boroughs within Alaska, we also ranked No. 1 in the social and economic category which accounts for factors like unemployment, children in poverty and social support programs. Tying into Juneau being a healthy place, Backpacker magazine recently rated us the fifth-best city in which to raise an outdoor kid.

For those on the other end of the age spectrum, like me, the positive news continues. U.S. News and Report recently rated Juneau as the sixth-best “outdoorsy” place to retire, noting that Juneau is one of the most playful cities in America. We’re also high on the list for best places to retire if you want to pay low taxes as a senior. This is both good and bad news for the city and borough as we have a booming senior population. According to JEDC’s report, between 2000 and 2010, the number of Juneau residents in their 60s nearly doubled. Fortunately, this is somewhat offset by a commensurate 17 percent increase in young persons aged 20-29.

The Alaska Native and Asian communities are also growing in Juneau. Alaska Natives now make up 19 percent of our population, up from 16 percent in 2000. The Asian community has grown 3 percent and now comprises 9 percent of our overall population. We are becoming more diverse and culturally rich. This was on display just last weekend when the South Pacific band Te Veka performed at the high school. For many of us enjoying the show, the highlight was when locals from Tonga and Samoa hopped up on stage to join in the dancing and singing; making the show a true community event.

Events like Celebration, the Folk Festival, Juneau Jazz and Classics and the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament don’t show up in community statistics but in some ways they, too, are indicators of Juneau’s high quality of life. Yes, Juneau may be expensive but where else to do you have a town of 31,275 producing outstanding symphonies, operas, award winning theater, sports stars, Olympians and national talent finalists? Where else do you watch whales bubble netting in the afternoon and go out for a delicious Thai dinner in the evening?

Si, Juneau es muy caro pero Juneau es cuidad extraordinaire. Now if we can only tackle that affordable housing problem and lower the gender gap on wages.

• Troll is a longtime Alaska resident and resides in Douglas.

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