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Southeast Conference meeting covers plethora of topics

Assemblymembers attending call it 'hard-hitting', 'great opportunity'

Posted: September 29, 2012 - 11:09pm

The Southeast Conference’s annual meeting concluded Thursday after four days of meetings, presentations and other events dealing with Southeast Alaska regional issues.

The City and Borough of Juneau was represented at the meeting by Assemblymembers Mary Becker, Johan Dybdahl, Carlton Smith, Randy Wanamaker and David G. Stone, who is also deputy mayor.

On Friday, after returning from the meeting in Craig, Smith said, “It’s always a good thing to get the regional perspective on the economy and also the concerns of other residents going forward. I was pleased that Juneau had a sizable delegation there.”

Becker, who was elected to the Southeast Conference board of directors at the meeting, agreed. She said a main theme of the meeting was the idea that, as she put it, “Whatever you’re doing in your community, think of how it will affect other communities, because we are all in this together.”

That perspective was apparent in one industry that received a lot of attention at the meeting.

“The significant thing that stood out for me was the substantial level of mining exploration and actually planned mines in that area,” Smith reported. “Just as we’ve seen with the Kensington and Greens Creek (mines), there are going to be job opportunities for Juneau residents in these projects that are underway.”

A few presentations caught Becker’s attention as well, including a report by Tim McLeod of Alaska Electric Light and Power on “Efficiency Implementation in the Utility System.”

“They had two presenters just prior to me that were talking about energy efficiency and conservation and the value of those things, so I was asked to follow up by talking about why AEL&P hired an expert to … educate people on energy efficiency,” explained McLeod, president and general manager of AEL&P.

McLeod called hydroelectric power “a wonderful, wonderful resource” due to its low operational costs, but in his presentation, he cautioned against switching over from diesel power generation en masse “too quickly.”

“One of the concerns that I pointed out there is if we had a mass swing from oil space heating in Juneau to all electric, we could end up in a situation where we actually use more oil in the community because we exceed our hydro capacity,” said McLeod. For such a swing, he added, “It would take far too much hydro. … There’s not that much available to us in Juneau to do that. We’d end up relying on diesel generation and that sort of thing.”

One of Becker’s former students, Meilani Schijvens, presented a report prepared by her firm, Sheinberg Associates, for the Southeast Conference entitled “Southeast Alaska by the Numbers.” Becker said she enjoyed that presentation as well.

“It’s very encouraging, because it shows the last five years at a glance and the … basically upward trend in many things,” said Becker, a retired schoolteacher.

The 11-page publication indicates job growth for the seafood, mining and health care industries, as well as in government. Mining in Southeast Alaska, according to the report, has added 238 jobs over the past five years ­— a growth of 58 percent.

By contrast, the report notes, the timber and wood products industry and the visitor industry have lost jobs.

Becker said she is particularly heartened by the 3 percent growth in total population over the past five years described in the publication.

“That’s not a lot, but it’s not going down,” Becker pointed out.

Schijvens is a former executive director of the Southeast Conference. That position is now held by Shelly Wright, who was in Craig for the meeting.

“That was a big highlight,” Wright said of the report. “Everyone really enjoyed seeing all of the numbers.”

Wright said about 220 people participated in the meeting, and close to $26,000 was raised in scholarship money for education in the region.

“We had record turnout, and Prince of Wales (Island) was a great host, and it was really a successful meeting,” said Wright.

Overall, Becker said, she thought it was a “very, very, very good meeting” that was “hard-hitting” and information-packed — so information-packed, in fact, that she said she is struggling to remember everything that was said.

“It was too hard to keep track of everything,” Becker said ruefully. “That was really an impossibility.”

Smith said, “By and large, I just think this is a great opportunity for us, from the Juneau delegation, to network with the other communities and offer some perspective from our community as to where the region is headed.”

Juneau’s legislators ­— Sen. Dennis Egan and Reps. Cathy Muñoz and Beth Kerttula — also attended the meeting, and Alaska’s 20-term congressman, Rep. Don Young, addressed attendees Wednesday evening.

Young, a Republican, said Friday that his key message was “mainly economics, and what we have to do and how we produce it.”

“The real wealth of this country has always been from resources and developing them,” said Young.

Smith called Young’s address “rather spectacular.”

“He was very much on his game and gave a very positive speech there at the concluding dinner, and he got a standing ovation,” Smith said. “It was nice to see him there.”

Young, who was traveling from Ketchikan to Sitka Friday, said he was able to attend the meeting because the United States House of Representatives was not in session during the week, leaving him with time to tour Southeast Alaska.

“I was very pleased with the conference,” Young said, praising the “positive” atmosphere he said he experienced. “The key to Southeast is to make sure everyone works together. This is sort of the forgotten area of the state, and that’s not good.”

The Southeast Conference was formed in 1958. Its original purpose was to advocate for the formation of what is now the Alaska Marine Highway System, which was founded in 1962 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

While this year’s annual meeting was in Craig, the organization itself is headquartered in Juneau.

Next year’s meeting will be held in Sitka in mid-September, Wright said. A “midsession summit” in late February will be held in Juneau.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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