Vitriolic nature of Juneau's reaction to move is offensive

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I take exception to the rhetoric surrounding Gov. Murkowski's decision to move the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) headquarters to Ketchikan. This move has been analyzed, debated, recommended and subsequently avoided for almost 15 years. The move's benefits have been detailed in numerous studies and affirmed by some of the system's own managers. To imply that the governor's decision was based solely on the Pacific Marine Technical Services' February discussion paper, or worse, that it is an act of political retribution against Juneau, simply ignores the facts. Previous administrations have politicized the issue and avoided the tough decision. I'm glad Gov. Murkowski has finally put the matter to rest.

Even without the anticipated cost savings, moving AMHS fleet operations and maintenance to Ketchikan makes sense. Ketchikan is a full-service maritime center with a growing base of retailers, service providers and skilled craftsmen dedicated to the trade. Consolidating fleet headquarters in the former Ketchikan Pulp Co. facility at Ward Cove will afford managers daily interaction with the fleet - including operations, overhaul, lay-up and logistical personnel. Moving managers and technical personnel out of Juneau and into that environment will result in more efficient, hands-on management. AMHS facilities in Ketchikan already include a staging area, passenger terminal, mainline and feeder berths and storage warehouse. Alaska Ship & Drydock, the state-owned shipyard where most of the fleet's annual maintenance takes place, is within a few minutes of Ward Cove.

This administration is committed to reducing the cost and improving the efficiency of state services, but it will take a series of bold moves like this one to accomplish it. Last year, the AMHS drew a $40 million general fund subsidy and still came up $3 million short. This year isn't shaping up any better, so all available cost savings measures should be employed. Other communities are making sacrifices to assist in the effort. Even though the governor's decision to homeport the Fairweather in Juneau upset many Sitkans, I don't recall hearing a hue and cry from Juneau demanding a public debate. Then, as now, it was the right thing to do for the system and for Alaska.

Critics complain about the economic impact of 40 jobs moving from Juneau, but let's put that number in perspective. Juneau is the only Southeast community that has experienced consistent economic growth in recent years. According to the Department of Labor, over the 10-year period 1993-2002, Juneau added 2,719 jobs while Ketchikan lost 850. The capital city has weathered the economic downturn affecting the rest of Southeast primarily because of an abundance of stable government jobs that helps attract year-round private sector investment to Juneau.

Change is never easy and Juneau's concern about the move is understandable. But I find the vitriolic nature of the debate offensive. Negative comments by Juneau's elected officials, the Empire and others haven't helped. Nothing about this move is superficial, whimsical or arbitrary. Let's be frank. Many in Juneau have worked hard to marginalize the resource industries that sustain the rest of Southeast Alaska. When the Ketchikan and Sitka pulp mills closed, applause from the capital city could be heard clear to Dixon Entrance. That's not an indictment of Juneau; it's simply the truth. At a minimum, I would have expected this announcement to be met with a bit more understanding and support, perhaps along the lines of what we provide every time the capital move issue starts to percolate.

Moving the Marine Highway headquarters is neither divisive politics nor hometown favoritism. It's good policy and strong leadership. Yes, the move benefits Ketchikan and for that, the city is grateful. But that's not why it was made. This decision formalizes decades of sound advice and improves on the delivery of a costly state service. I look forward to welcoming the marine highway system, its employees and their families to Ketchikan. I know the community will go out of its way to make the transition as smooth as possible. When the dust settles and the rhetoric dies, the merits of this decision will be abundantly clear.

• Sen. Bert K. Stedman is a Republican from Sitka.



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