As economy struggles, Ketchikan residents hunger for jobs

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2004

Former loggers Ed Weaver and Don Girdley, both 65, sat at the dimly lit, smoke-filled Totem Bar at 10:30 on a Monday morning in downtown Ketchikan sipping Budweisers and mixed drinks and listening to blues guitar on the jukebox.

Both found themselves out of work in the 1990s when the timber industry toppled in Southeast.

They agreed the island city could use the 44 ferry system jobs that the state plans to move there from Juneau. Anything but more tourism jobs, they said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has approved relocation of the Alaska Marine Highway System headquarters to Ketchikan, and some in the southern Panhandle say it's only fair for Juneau to share with its less prosperous neighbors.

Weaver, who worked in the timber industry for 45 years, said he would go back to work at the logging camps if he could, but added, "Those days are all gone."

In March 1997, the Ketchikan Pulp Co., the community's largest employer at the time, closed its pulp mill at Ward Cove and laid off more than 500 workers. About 3,000 logging and sawmill jobs left Southeast Alaska between 1990 and 2002, according to the state Department of Labor.

More than 1,100 residents have left Ketchikan since.

Weaver and Girdley criticized the increase of tourist shops in Ketchikan over the last decade, some of which have moved into bars they used to frequent. Earlier this month the historic Alaska Bar closed its doors after 20 years of business and is being turned into a jewelry store for tourists.

"The only thing that keeps (the economy) going is all these jewelry stores," Weaver said.

"It's too much of a tourist town now," Girdley added.

Timber isn't the only industry in decline in Ketchikan. Work for fishermen also is becoming scarce.

According to the state Department of Labor, the decline of salmon and herring fisheries have forced fishermen to leave the industry by the hundreds. Salmon permit holders dropped by almost 1,000 in Southeast between 1992 and 2002, representing a 37 percent reduction in the work force.

Many in Ketchikan say they need the ferry system jobs more than Juneau, one of the few Southeast communities that has not shown a net loss in employment in the last decade.

"Right now this town can use all the help it can get," said Mark Elie, 47, a Ketchikan fisherman who works odd jobs during the off-season.

Elie, born and raised in Ketchikan, said he grew up fishing but it's getting harder to find employment.

"I had to call now to ensure my job for the October shrimp season," Elie said. "Can you imagine that?"

At the Plaza Port West Mall in Ketchikan, Dave Smith, 32, a Ketchikan High School social studies teacher, stood watch while his daughter sold Girl Scout cookies to passersby. Various shops are scattered throughout the bottom floor of the mall, which opened with the town's first McDonald's restaurant in the mid-1980s. Now most of the second floor is empty.

Smith said he feels sorry for the Juneau families affected by the move, but Ketchikan needs jobs.

"I look at my daughter and we're exporting our youth," he said. "I don't know how much of this will be left in 13 to 15 years."

Smith, a quarterback for Ketchikan High School in 1990, likened the battle over the ferry system jobs to "sibling rivalry."

"Juneau is the bigger brother but we sometimes get our licks in," Smith said. "It's really like sibling rivalry in Southeast because we're all up against the powers that be up north."

Kent Miller, of Craig, an economist who lived in Ketchikan and has prepared economic data for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, said the city has suffered a chronic decline in population since 1996.

The borough has lost 1,106 residents since about a year before the closure of the pulp mill, he said, citing statistics from the state Department of Labor.

On nearby Prince of Wales Island, 1,395 people have left since 1996, according to Department of Labor economist Neal Gilbertsen.

A Department of Labor analysis released in March 2004 shows about 850 fewer jobs in Ketchikan between 1993 and 2002.

Ketchikan's unemployment rate, however, has dropped from 12.1 percent in 1996 to 8.9 percent in 2003.

"(The unemployment rate) tends to run higher when times are good," Miller said. "People stay around waiting for jobs to open up."

Considering the decline in population in Ketchikan and other Southeast communities, Miller said Juneau should spread the wealth.

"When the issue of the Marine Highway move first came up, (then-Juneau Mayor) Sally Smith said we are in favor of economic development, but we need to get there together," Miller said, noting that Juneau is the only area of Southeast that has experienced growth. "That's a good concept, but what's missing is the lack of recognition that we're not getting there together."

Jack Shay, a member of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly who voted for the move proposal, told lawmakers last week during a House State Affairs Committee that the job transfer represents a small portion of the Juneau work force and that Southeast communities need to work together to ensure the region's economic vitality.

He said he understands that Juneau lawmakers have a responsibility to their constituents to keep jobs in their communities.

"But you also have a larger responsibility and that is for the region, because under any kind of redistricting or reapportionment program I'm afraid we are going to lose representation," Shay said. "We need to work together."

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at

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