My turn: Embrace a new definition of 'community'

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

Community discourse on capital-legislative move efforts seems focused on where Juneau has positioned itself since the 1994 capital move election. As a former Juneau Assembly member, current president of Southeast Conference and a member of the Alaska Committee, I am directly involved with these issues and feel compelled to share some recent experiences and current perceptions.

Just last month I worked the Juneau booth at the Tanana Valley Fair in Fairbanks where I probably made contact with between 1,200 and 1,500 northern Alaskans. For the most part they were friendly and hospitable and indicated previous support for Juneau in its various capital move battles. I was particularly struck, however, by an increasing concern about their real or perceived problem in having access to their capital city.

Approximately one-third of those with whom I had serious conversations expressed their consternation about lack of a "hard link" to Juneau from the rest of the state. The comments generally fell into four categories:

* Why isn't there a road in and out of Juneau?

* Why doesn't Juneau want a road?

* I like Juneau, but I can't get there from here.

* Why does it cost so much to fly to Juneau?

Please be assured that these were spontaneous questions and comments. I would never initiate conversations about road access mostly because I did not have a good answer. It is important to understand that the primary mode of transportation in the Fairbanks area is vehicular, via some kind of road or highway. Our fellow Alaskans simply do not equate the "information highway" to a real highway.

Part of our mission at the fair was to increase the level of understanding about the progress we have made to make Juneau a better capital city for all Alaskans. Everyone who represented Juneau did an outstanding job promoting Juneau. We talked about CBJ support for "Gavel to Gavel," Comtech, Internet streaming, airport improvements, collaborating agreements with Alaska Airlines that have resulted in technologically upgraded aircraft and special airfares to and from Juneau during the legislative session.

The fact remains that despite these efforts we have not solved the access problem and some of our northern neighbors believe that the prevailing attitude in Juneau is that we choose not to solve it.

In relating these experiences to some in Juneau during the past few weeks, I am amazed at the number of people who respond, "Well, we just have to educate these folks." Perhaps in some instances a little more education would help. My sense, however, is that the fairgoers spoke from the heart and using intellectual arguments to help people see the "error of their ways" will not be effective. Perhaps that time has come to re-energize our efforts to make some real and visible progress toward connecting Juneau and Southeast Alaska to the rest of the state.

But this problem is not just a northern issue. In spite of the excellent outreach and support that was the hallmark of Dennis Egan's administration when he served as Juneau's mayor, other forces in this community, or forces identified with Juneau, have caused a significant rift between Juneau and many residents of Southeast. Juneau is blessed with a relatively secure economic environment. The same cannot be said for the rest of the region, where the only viable industry left is seasonal tourism and the struggle to survive is monumental. Individuals and organizations located in Juneau who have worked to thwart the traditional resource-based economy of Southeast have damaged both our neighbors and our relationship with them, and much hard work by many Juneau residents has been eroded.

In my capacity as president of Southeast Conference, I have frequent contact with local leaders and opinion makers across the region. Like many I understand that if we do not stand together as a region, we will most assuredly fall as a region, so it is essential that we make our neighbors' issues our issues and vice-versa. Whether Juneau residents understand and emphasize with our neighbors who are trying to preserve an economic base to support their communities and feed their families, they should at least recognize that the economy of the entire region is linked.

Before Juneau can "come together" to fight this legislative move battle, we should engage in some real soul searching and attitude adjustment about our role as Capital City. While it may be true that the few who are initiating this legislative move effort are motivated by greed, the people of Alaska who will actually vote on this issue will decide our fate based on how they perceive our community and how the outcome of the vote will impact their lives.

Because the vote is over a year away, Juneau still has time to demonstrate tangible progress in addressing the access and economic issues that are so important to all Alaskans. This will require our elected leadership to do more than pay lip service to these concerns. Excuses and justifications simply will not do. Good friends are hard to get and keep. If we truly value the community we've worked so hard to build for our families here, we will embrace a new definition of "community" that is inclusive of our neighbors' needs and concerns as well as our own. This should be our legacy as a capital city for all Alaskans.

*****

Rosemary Hagevig is a 39-year resident of Southeast Alaska. In addition to being president of Southeast Conference, she served two terms on the CBJ Assembly, two years on the CBJ Planning Commission, five years on the Alaska Municipal League Board and one year as AML state president.



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