Miners en route, and they'll need places to live

Juneau's housing prices expected to rise

Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Local real-estate experts predict an influx of well-paid Kensington gold mine workers will be a boon to Juneau's housing market.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"Now that I'm a seller rather than a buyer, gosh, I hope they're right," said Juneau resident Laury Scandling, who is selling her Juneau house and moving into a smaller one.

About 45 people work at the mine, which has been on hold. But operator Coeur Alaska Inc. won its U.S. Supreme Court case Monday, meaning development can proceed. Coeur says it will need 300 workers to finish building it by the second half of 2010 and 200 workers to operate it. Alaska miners make $80,000 a year on average plus benefits.

But how much will the miners matter to the market?

That depends, state economist Caroline Schultz said, on how many are hired locally, versus how many come up from other parts of Alaska or outside the state. While local hires are usually seen as a plus, Schultz said, "with regards to the housing market, local hire isn't necessarily the best thing."

It will also depend on the schedules miners and construction workers have, Schultz said. A nine-to-fiver is more likely to stick around than a Montana-based miner who has a few weeks off at a time.

Coeur's subcontractors in the past worked six weeks on, two weeks off; Coeur workers now are on two weeks on/one week off rotations, said Tony Ebersole, spokesman for Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene. Future rotations will depend on budgets and production schedules.

One yardstick for residency: In 2007, nonresidents made up 26.8 percent of Coeur Alaska's workforce and 32.9 percent of the Hecla Mining Co.'s Greens Creek mine workforce, according to state data, which defines residency through Alaska Permanent Fund dividend eligibility.

Parent company Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. did not provide specific estimates of how many locals it would hire, though it has agreed to hire a certain percentage of Alaska Natives and Native-affiliated workers.

"We anticipate that the majority of the jobs will come from a local pool of qualified applicants," Ebersole said.

Part of "qualified" means getting federally mandated training in mine safety, which the University of Southeast helps local mine workers do. Ebersole said at least 100 people have been trained in those kinds of classes in Juneau since 2005.

In general, local hire is more likely for miners and construction workers, Ebersole said, while Coeur would fly up people to fill technical or managerial positions.

New Coeur hires will be dropping into a housing market that, according to Schultz, is pretty stable, though it may have gone down slightly in the last year. Overall, home prices here have been the highest in the state on average and steady over the last decade, Schultz said.

Real estate agents are optimistic about the miners' effects.

Chuck Ramage, an agent here for the last 17 years, said Juneau real estate picked up in the last eight weeks after an 18-month lull. Now, he's working seven days a week, and houses are selling as soon as they get on the market. He attributes it partly to artificially low interest rates.

Looking at sales data, he predicts a further pickup. Prices, he said, will be higher in 12 months than they've ever been. The Kensington gold mine will stimulate both housing and rental prices, "and it's probably going to stimulate it exponentially," he said.

"We have almost no affordable land left, and almost no vacancies. So it won't take much of an immigration of people to drive the prices up," Ramage said.

Dennis and Kim Mathers tried to sell their Mendenhall Valley house last year with no luck, and are now giving it another shot. The Mathers have lived in five homes in the last 18 years, as they raised kids and moved them out, so they're old hands at this. In the past, they sold each house in less than a week. But if they're still selling this one by the time Kensington workers come looking, it can only be a good thing.

"It's not going to hurt," said Dennis Mathers. "Not by any means."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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