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Pitching Alaska's benefits

Palmer tells panel tourism is bouncing back, must market its worth to film industry

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 6:46pm  |  Updated: February 8, 2013 - 1:10am
Lorene Palmer, Director of the Division of Economic Development at the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, speaks to the House Special Committee on Economic Development, Trade and Tourism at the Capitol on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Lorene Palmer, Director of the Division of Economic Development at the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, speaks to the House Special Committee on Economic Development, Trade and Tourism at the Capitol on Thursday.

Alaska Division of Economic Development Director Lorene Palmer told a special House committee Thursday that the state appears to be recovering from its recent tourism slump.

Palmer, who is familiar to Juneauites as the former president and chief executive officer of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave a presentation on the tourism and film industries in Alaska.

She told the Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Committee that the visitor industry in Alaska — in which she played a prominent role in the private sector before accepting her position with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development last November — added jobs over the past two years and spent more money than it had in the 2008-09 period.

“Looking forward, we have some good news,” Palmer said. “We’re seeing our tourism industry recover from what we saw was a trough that we hit right during the recession.”

Alaska had more than 1,586,000 visitors last year, according to Palmer’s statistics, representing an increase of nearly 30,000 from 2011 and more than 54,000 from the tourism industry’s nadir in 2010.

The state currently spends about $17 million per year on tourism marketing, including $9.9 million for advertising.

“You’ll see that the lion’s share of this goes to our advertising,” Palmer said. “And our advertising is the mechanism where we create the greatest amount of volume of awareness about Alaska.”

In return for the state’s investment, Palmer said during her presentation, the tourism industry generates some $3.72 billion worth of “direct and indirect spending in the state,” as well as $179 million collected in taxes and fees. It employs about 37,800 people, with that number rising to 45,000 during “peak season” in the summertime, according to the presentation.

The Division of Economic Development also invests in public relations and other non-advertising forms of outreach to get people thinking about visiting Alaska, Palmer said.

One prominent recent example Palmer mentioned was the filming of “Top Chef” in Alaska. The first of two episodes filmed in Juneau aired Wednesday night on the Bravo network. The second is airing next week.

Palmer said this week’s episode generated buzz on Twitter, reading aloud several Tweets that viewers posted during the show complimenting or expressing interest in visiting Alaska, and attracted a sizable television audience. She said the estimated PR value of the two episodes is $5.4 million.

“This was a really terrific opportunity to get Alaska and Alaska seafood products in the minds of the viewers,” Palmer said.

Committee members had a lot of questions about the part of Palmer’s presentation that had to do with the film industry, which Alaska has recently been trying to attract with tax credits and workforce training programs through the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Southeast Alaska Film Training Consortium and others.

“It’s been effective, I assume, or we wouldn’t be going back and doing it again,” Hughes said of the state’s participation in annual film industry trade shows in recent years.

Palmer replied, “Rep. Hughes, with all of these types of efforts, sometimes it just takes being there, in front of them, in front of them, in front of them, so that they come to know Alaska and start to think about it.”

That prompted House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who sits on the committee, to wonder why that is necessary.

“How do they not know about Alaska?” asked Pruitt. He added, “I’m just fascinated by the fact that we’re still having to continue to go to something just so people recognize what Alaska is.”

Palmer responded that while producers may have a “big picture” concept of Alaska, they might not know the details of how filming in Alaska would work, or what the state has to offer.

“It’s just like any other product Alaska offers,” Palmer said. “It’s partly education. It’s partly being able to give them the nuts and bolts about how to do business here.”

Some $18.6 million in film tax credits were paid out in fiscal year 2012, and almost $10 million have been paid out in FY13 to date, Palmer said.

Pruitt asked, “Are you seeing, because of the investment that is taking place from tax credits … that it’s starting to develop that industry that was the goal behind this to begin with?”

Palmer said she thinks it is too early to tell, although she pointed to the burgeoning film workforce development programs as an example of the state working toward that goal.

Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, said he is “glad to see that we’re starting to train a workforce for the industry.”

“In the reality of it, in the film industry in the state of Alaska, we’re babies to this — we are,” Higgins added a few minutes later. “I think it’s just one of those things that’s going to take time to develop.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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