Population decreases since 1990
Hobart Bay has almost disappeared and other Southeast towns are shrinking.
When census takers visited Southeast 10 years ago, it was full of bustling logging camps. At the time, 187 people lived and worked at Hobart Bay, 60 miles southeast from Juneau. When the census takers returned a year ago they could find only three residents.
That was more than they found in Long Island, Labouchere Bay, Dora Bay, Port Alice, or Rowan Bay, all logging communities counted in the 1990 census that are gone now, said Greg Williams, a state demographer.
"Those, in particular, were logging camps that shut down ultimately with the closing of the mills," Williams said. "The folks either went to another logging camp somewhere or left the state in some cases."
Changes in Southeast's resource-based economy have hit some towns hard, and it shows in their populations. Out of 36 communities in Southeast, 15 lost population over the last decade.
Their losses were Juneau's gain, as people left smaller communities to find work in the city. Juneau grew 21 percent since the last census, outpacing the rest of the country's 17 percent growth.
"To some degree, some of Juneau's growth has been the result of folks moving in from the surrounding area, from Wrangell and Prince of Wales and Angoon and places like that, because we've had at least a moderate steady growth in jobs as a regional service center," Williams said. "Juneau probably is the only community in Southeast that has shown any steady, substantial growth in this decade."
Others, including Sitka and Haines, have been stable, Williams said.
Wrangell's loss of residents was no secret, but city officials there were surprised by how much. The census count found 171 fewer people in Wrangell this time than 10 years ago.
"It was a huge shock when you suddenly get the numbers," said Wrangell economic development planner Carol Rushmore.
The mill in Wrangell shut down in 1994. For two to three years the out-migration seemed like an exodus. Now it has slowed, but recent stops and starts in the timber industry have more people talking about leaving, Rushmore said. She expects another drop in population.
About 30 percent of the homes and apartments in town are vacant, and homes are taking a long time to sell, Rushmore said. The schools had 90 fewer students in 2000 than five years before, and fewer still are expected this fall.
Populations in small Southeast communities react more directly to changes in the economy than communities in which the residents can commute to a larger city. Rushmore said a planned inter-island ferry system could help stabilize Wrangell's population. She also is trying to identify land to develop into a new harbor and marine repair facility. A recently opened golf course is already drawing golfers to Wrangell from around Southeast.
When communities shrink below a certain size, it's hard for them to rebound. If the community can't produce at least 10 students, the state reduces funding for the school, which is usually closed. That causes other families to move away.
"Certainly places like Elfin Cove have been seriously damaged as the school's been pulled," Williams said.
In 10 more years communities like Hobart Bay and Meyers Chuck could be ghost towns, Williams said.
"There are places where the population is getting older and most of the kids are gone," Williams said. "They haven't been replaced and I don't know what will ultimately happen to them, but some of them may cease to exist."
Other towns may have stabilized and be ready to start growing again, said Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.
"They will reach an equilibrium, one would think," Miller said. "In some of these places the first people to leave have left and the people left are more deeply rooted."
Ketchikan lost 341 people since the last census, not surprising considering the pulp mill closed in 1997, said Ketchikan City Clerk Katy Suiter. Businesses closed, but now new businesses have begun to open.
"A lot of businesses have shifted focus, as far as trying to figure out what will work," Suiter said. "There's been a huge increase in tourism businesses."
Southeast isn't the only part of Alaska on the losing end. The population also has fallen in Athabascan areas in central Alaska. The only real growth has been in Anchorage and the surrounding urban areas.
"We haven't had very much growth in the state as a whole this decade," Williams said. "We've been one of the slowest growing states in the country in terms of overall economic growth. While we've been growing a little bit, we just have not been keeping up with the rest of the country, economically, income-wise, you name it."
Traditionally people came to Alaska from Washington, Oregon and California to earn money. Now the tables have turned, and many professionals can make more money in the Lower 48 than in Juneau, Miller said. He predicts Juneau will continue to grow slowly, at a rate of 1 percent to 1.5 percent a year, as people move here for the quality of life. Williams agrees.
"I don't anticipate some major turnaround in growth," Williams said.
Kristan Hutchison can be reached at email@example.com.
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