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Why are we here? Anyone who lives through two months of rain sooner or later starts with that question. The economic system that fuels our community is intrinsically linked to this fundamental idea: Why are we here?
I work with communities throughout Southeast Alaska that have been hit hard by the downturn in timber industry. Each community has a reason for its existence. Some were a good location to put logs in the water, some were a place to process fish. Some communities had a beach and harbor, which made it a good place to haul out canoes and build long houses. Some towns were remarkable only because they were close to some transportation route and mineral resources. Each community has people who choose to live where they live, raise their kids, build their houses, fish, volunteer, work, play softball, and live the Southeast Alaska experience. Each is unique, and yet each town has the same challenges and problems.
I find it worthwhile to remember the names and places where towns no longer exist - Loring, Hadley, Howkan, Sukkwan, Lab Bay and Port Houghton - places where people lived, worked, played and eventually left. They left when there was no reason to stay, when no one could answer the question: Why are we here?
Let's look at Juneau, Alaska's capital. Historians have said it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time for Juneau to become the capital. Juneau rode its mineral wealth toward statehood, then the oil wealth that has fueled the local economy through the last 35 years. Juneau's economic pie chart shows the state and federal government puts about 40 percent of the pay in local pockets. Local government and utilities chip in another 20 percent. Fish, minerals and manufacturing squeak in another 11 percent. The remaining 30 or so percent is from service industries including retail and wholesale and construction trades. Juneau is unique in Southeast in that most of the wealth that drives local prosperity comes from someplace else. It's a big problem if that stream of wealth stops coming.
When small communities try to restart their economic engines, their community leaders ask, "What would we do if we were starting from the beginning?" The answer: Create local jobs, harvest resources more efficiently, build affordable infrastructure and diversify, diversify, diversify.
What if Juneau were to start again? What do we have to work with, to make it worthwhile to be here? We have a great Alaska experience: healthy environment, community spirit, choices in how we find social fulfillment and recreational entertainment. Juneau has cheap hydroelectric power and the ability to tap into more when we need it. We have mineral resources, healthy fish runs and trees. We have a communications pipeline to the rest of the world through a fiber optic cable. There is land for houses, businesses and places to tie up big ships. There is a downtown core of offices, residences and places to eat and shop that have character, although they might need a little fixing up. We have invested in schools and have involved parents and teachers. We have a glacier. Most of all we have a diverse, hardworking group of people who have invested their lives into this place and choose to stay.
The economic engine of Juneau is already changing. As government payrolls decline, other sectors of the economy must grow. But even doubling the number and quality of jobs in resources and manufacturing will still only provide about 20 percent of the current economy.
We have a great opportunity in businesses that are not yet on our map industries that the early miners and shopkeepers could not even imagine information technology, intellectual properties, research, high-tech manufacturing. All these industries seek quality living space, reliable power, access to world markets, and a diverse educated work force. Sounds like Juneau to me. Now, the question is how to build a social and technological environment that make it almost impossible for growing industries not to consider Juneau and Southeast Alaska as the best place to be.
Mark Jaqua is an economic development planner with Southeast Conference, and works with communities throughout the Panhandle.