No matter what University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service decides about its future in Juneau, one thing is clear: Jim Douglas can't be replaced.
More than 35 people attended a public comment session, held during the lunch hour Wednesday at the Baranof Hotel to help determine whether to continue the service after the 20-year extension officer's retirement. The 14 members of the service's advisory council called the meeting to hear from residents as they consider spreading limited funds statewide.
Douglas organizes and recruits volunteers for local 4-H clubs, serves as a resource for the local Master Gardeners program and organizes and sometimes teaches community education classes. When he retires July 1, the Cooperative Extension Service may leave his position unfilled.
"We just can't imagine Juneau without 4-H," said Sara Poor, who testified before the committee with her two daughters. "It's hard enough to imagine Juneau without Jim, but we just don't want 4-H to go away."
The Cooperative Extension Service, a feature of most state universities nationwide, makes research and information produced by the universities available to the public, Douglas said. Many 4-H clubs are formed to fill that mission.
Though many of the well-established 4-H clubs may continue to operate for several years without a Cooperative Extension officer in Juneau, they most likely will deteriorate and cease to exist after a while, many Juneau residents told the council.
"You pull the agent and the program will survive for one to two years, maybe. It might not," said Ken Coate, a volunteer with the 4-H outdoors skills program.
Juneau residents are very active volunteers in the community, said Marc Wheeler, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Alaska. But it takes a paid employee to make the most effective use of that volunteer power.
Other community members commented on Douglas' extensive knowledge of gardening, his enthusiasm for his position and his drive in creating new 4-H clubs.
"It is encouraging to see how many people here are involved in Cooperative Extension and can recognize how Cooperative Extension can represent the university," said Karen Cedzo of Delta Junction, chairwoman of the advisory council.
The council continues meeting today to hear from Juneau residents and talk to legislators. Members planned to discuss the public comment session and decide what to do, Cedzo said.
The advisory council can only recommend certain actions and has no power to make decisions, Cedzo said. The decision of whether to replace Douglas falls to Tony Nakazawa, the Cooperative Extension Service director.
Nakazawa will make the decision based on the needs of all regions in the state, he said.
As for the notion that Douglas can't be replaced even if Cooperative Extension continued to fund his position, Juneau resident Jenifer Shapland suggested a solution.
"Don't even think about cutting the funding for this position," she said. "Think about doubling it."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.