Alaska looks for makeover

Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2006

Icebergia. Seward's Folly. Seward's Icebox. Johnson's Polar Bear Garden.

The lampooning nicknames flowed when the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for around 2 cents per acre. Even the great writer Mark Twain sneeringly referred to the young territory as "Walrussia" in his letters from Washington, D.C., in 1868.

Since then, Alaskans have gotten over outsiders thinking they live cheek-to-jowl with polar bears and survive on icebergs in a frozen wasteland.

They've now got a different kind of image problem: Greed.

Forget The Last Frontier. Nowadays, the Lower 48 seems to be looking at Alaska as the Freeloading Frontier.

Gov. Frank Murkowski says it's time for an image makeover. He wants the state to hire a public relations firm to not only bolster the state's image, but also to sway public opinion on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Most state leaders favor opening ANWR to oil drilling - which would grow Alaska's coffers like the trans-Alaska oil pipeline has done for decades - but environmentalists have successfully blocked congressional attempts to do so for a quarter-century. In the process, drilling opponents have painted Alaska supporters as profiteers willing to forsake the state's fragile ecosystem and wildlife along the coastal plain for oil money.

Then there's government watchdogs, who point to Alaska as a top recipient of federal largesse. And in the post-Hurricane Katrina era, just about everybody, it seems, has criticized the $450 million Congress appropriated for two Alaska "Bridges to Nowhere" that became symbols of wasteful government spending nationwide.

The mayor of Ketchikan, Bob Weinstein, whose town was to receive $223 million in federal transportation earmarks for its "Bridge to Nowhere" - until Congress bowed to public pressure and stripped the stipulations, but still sent the money to the state - says the past year has left his residents feeling like "Nobodies from Nowhere."

The ridicule has extended from the halls of Congress to the sets of late-night television shows. Even the august opinion pages of The Washington Post recommended, tongue-in-cheek, that the United States sell Alaska back to Russia.

For some, the perception of Alaskans - who can apply for a yearly dividend from the state just for living here - as wealthy-but-wanting-more is nothing new. Ketchikan commercial fishermen Fred Athorp, 68, remembers the remarks some Florida lobstermen made to him a few years ago.

"They said, 'We aren't in Alaska, where we drive down to our boats in our Rolls Royces,'" Athorp said. "There's quite a few misconceptions. I kind of like it. Not as many people move here."

For many others - particularly the state's political leaders - being the butt of a national joke is grating.

"We are a young, we're still a developing state. But Alaska does not just take. We give, and we have the capacity to give much, much more - if permitted to do so," Gov. Frank Murkowski said in this month's State of the State Address.

Murkowski announced an idea to launch a multiyear study of the nation's opinions of the state, culminating in a coast-to-coast marketing campaign about Alaska.

The governor's campaign would go beyond tourism, for which the state recently launched a new slogan, "B4UDIE," meant to pitch the state as once-in-a-lifetime destination.

Instead, the campaign would aim to stamp out the nation's misperceptions about Alaska. John Katz, who heads Murkowski's Washington, D.C., office, described it as "a dialogue with America."

"We are not that many years beyond statehood and are dealing with many problems that other states dealt with years ago," Katz said. "Coupled with that, there's a lack of knowledge about the contributions Alaska can make in terms of oil, gas, minerals and other commodities."

Alaska's giving centers on its natural resources. The North Slope pumped out an average 916,000 barrels of oil a day last year. Fishermen pulled 5.4 billion pounds of fish from Alaska's waters in 2004. The state played host to 1.4 million tourists that year. The Red Dog Mine in the Brooks Range is the largest zinc mining operation in the world, and gold mining is resurfacing in Fairbanks and Juneau with large mine construction projects.

Alaska's makeover plan is still being fleshed out, but it would have three phases, Katz said. The first would be to hire a company to find out what exactly are the perceptions and misperceptions Americans have about Alaska, and where they get their information.

The Alaska Legislature, the state's congressional delegation and the governor's office would review the data. Then the state would hire a PR firm to create a campaign.

"I think it's a brilliant idea, a master stroke on the part of the governor," said Rob Allyn, president of the Dallas-based PR firm Allyn & Co., which lists heads of state and foreign political parties among its clients. "The image problems Alaska faces, and the global misconceptions of Alaska, are as great today as when Alaska was mislabeled Seward's Folly."

Other states are already on the road to image reform. New Jersey, for example, wants people to forget stereotypes about refinery odors and mobsters, and is urging tourists to "Come See For Yourself."

There are other success stories, Allyn said. Who would have thought South Africa, shunned for so many years because of apartheid, would become such a widely accepted tourism destination, he said.

Allyn's firm could be among those competing if the idea gets off the ground, although he said he has not engaged in any talks with state officials.

Allyn said if he were in charge of the makeover, he would accentuate Alaska's basic assets and strengths, such as natural resources and the wildlife, glaciers and wilderness that lure the tourists.

Because no matter how much the state produces for the rest of the nation, its economic value does not equal the value of its reputation, Allyn said.

"Alaska has this enormous wealth in resources, but its greatest wealth is its image," Allyn said.

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