My turn: Everyone shares part of blame for economic decline

Posted: Monday, January 18, 2010

More than a year ago, former Juneau Assembly member Ken Koelsch wrote a My Turn saying that major construction projects were winding down and no new ones were in Juneau's pipeline. Forecasting a possible economic avalanche, he warned that social needs rise exponentially during economic downturns.

An article in Monday's Empire, "After robbery, business owner decries decline," told the story of a break-in at a downtown business. Proprietor Art Sutch lashed out: "The streets are dirty, half the shops are closed but they don't do anything except promote tourism. We're turning into a cruise ship port and box store depot. Our whole sense of community is going down the drain."

There's plenty of blame to go around as long as we're willing to look in the mirror. Start with changing demographics. Across the country, core downtowns have been drying up for years. First shoppers migrated to suburban malls and later big box stores. Now many of us buy online, depriving local merchants and city treasuries of the revenue necessary for survival.

Our Assembly and legislative delegation - current and former - are also partly to blame. Elected officials get caught up in the immediate here and now and lose sight of big picture realities. They also spend an inordinate amount of time fielding phone calls and addressing individual concerns. Some matters are mundane, but important. Equally time-consuming are the petty annoyances of chronic cranks.

Distractions aren't an excuse but they make it hard to focus on the future. It takes time, creativity and vision for city leaders to figure out what needs to be put in place in the present so when they leave office, their successors inherit a healthy city to administer.

Juneau's economic foundation is built on state government, which is based on oil. Declining oil production mandates more than one wobbly leg on our economic stool. We have very, very few options.

Imagine if certain elected officials had convinced their friends at Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to stand down and not challenge the legally permitted Kensington gold mine. Instead, our leaders were mostly passive and the project was delayed. It's just one reason we're behind the economic curve.

Imagine if eight to ten years ago, our entire legislative delegation and every Assembly member had stood up to SEACC and worked with our business community and construction industry to promote, not obstruct the Juneau Access Road. Instead they nurtured dreamy fantasies about "improving" an unsustainable ferry system (with declining state revenues). A major missed-opportunity, this infrastructure project could now be injecting $40 million annually into the Juneau economy, supporting local businesses and city services.

Cruise ships impose burdens on the community but they're not why someone commits burglary. The cruise industry brings outside dollars in and provides year-round and seasonal employment. Other capital cities, such as Bismarck, S.D., and Topeka, Kansas, aren't that lucky.

Cruise passenger spending brings in 20 percent of Juneau's sales tax revenue and unlike head taxes can be spent on any city service. To fund schools, property tax revenue from expensive South Franklin Street real estate must be sustained. Imagine if in early 2006, Juneau's legislative delegation and Assembly had crafted a compromise with the cruise industry to forestall passage of the counterproductive $50 head tax initiative.

Oblivious to shifting demographics and declining state revenues, most of our elected officials supported the head tax, opposed the road and were ambivalent about the Kensington. Did they offer viable, comparable alternatives to balance the local economy? No. But a majority of voters didn't care so the anti-development organizations and politicians were validated.

City government structure hasn't helped. Many municipalities have staff devoted solely to economic development. Who in Juneau's bureaucracy is responsible for cultivating sources of revenue other than various forms of taxation? Our managers oversee the spending of wealth, not its creation.

Juneau's homeless are increasing and the jobless can't be far behind. Mendenhall Valley malls and downtown businesses struggle while tourism companies are cutting back. Yet SEACC's website boasts a staff of 13. They fashioned an industry out of crippling other industries and even have spare cash for an image makeover.

Will an economic avalanche make our leaders man-up so we can dig out and finally diversify our economy, or will they just give us another SEACC snow job?

• Paulette Simpson is a Juneau resident.

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