My Turn: Small towns attract jobs as good places to live

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005

From my office window in Bozeman I can see what's locally known as the "diaper line" - clear cuts dating back to a decades-old battle over timber harvests in Southwest Montana. The Gallatin National Forest doesn't harvest many trees any more, and the Bozeman-area economy is now the most dynamic in the state. As part of this evolution, the discussion has shifted from timber battles to finding ways to restore the landscape, an asset that is attracting new business activity at an unprecedented rate.

It's time to move beyond the old, and now stale, opposition: jobs versus the environment. If nobody seems to be winning this debate, it's because it no longer makes much sense. Most new jobs and income created in the western U.S., Alaska, and Southeast Alaska are not to be found in traditional resource-industry sectors. Whether you see this shift as good or bad is perhaps less important than the fact that it has happened. Our economies have changed, and we're struggling to adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

This does not mean that resource jobs, in industries like mining and forestry that are historically important in Southeast Alaska, have no role or can't be pursued profitably. They can. However, it's a fact that the largest and fastest growing sectors of the regional economy are service and professional industries. In Juneau, for example, service and professional sectors account for 65 percent of all new employment in the last 30 years, and 54 percent of all current employment.

Services include a wide variety of occupations that range from lower-paying jobs, like retail clerks, in consumer services to mid- to high-paying jobs in tourism to higher-paying jobs, like lawyers and engineers, in producer services. Since services have become the main game in town, the question becomes how to attract high-wage service occupations.

If we look around the western United States, including Alaska, it's not difficult to see that our urban areas - because of their size, industrial diversity, business clusters, education rates, and infrastructure - are the primary centers of wealth-generation today. The challenge for many rural areas and small towns is how to compete with and connect to these dynamic urban markets.

Small towns compete with urban centers by offering qualities that attract creative and entrepreneurial people who bring jobs with them when they move to small towns or who start new enterprises that sell a variety of goods and services outside the region. They connect to regional hubs such as Seattle and Anchorage using solid airport infrastructure that provides access to national and world markets.

The old paradigm, jobs lead to in-migration, is yielding to a new logic: migration choices lead to job creation. This may be good news for Southeast Alaska. The unique blend of landscape, community, quality education, and travel and communications infrastructure make much of the region a desirable place to live and conduct business.

Several years ago, we surveyed business owners who recently moved to Southwest Montana to find out why they relocated here. The answers were remarkably consistent: social amenities (good schools, low crime rates), followed by recreational amenities (fishing, skiing), and then environmental amenities (open space, clean water). Traditional recruitment indices like tax rates and labor costs rated low. And, in what was a surprise to us, most surveyed business owners said they would be more profitable elsewhere but chose to move their business here anyway - because quality of life was more important than additional profit.

Attracting and retaining talented business people by being the best place to live is proving to be a highly successful approach to creating opportunity and prosperity. Of course, time and energy must also be devoted to entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and education. Southeast Alaska has many of the assets and skills necessary to prosper in coming years. The challenge will be to work in partnership to benefit from the region's changing competitive advantage.

• Ben Alexander is associate director of the Socioeconomics Program at the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson, Ariz.-based conservation nonprofit. Alexander will speak at 7 p.m. today at the Baranof Hotel on how coastal Alaska can benefit from the economic transition.

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