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The two candidates for the areawide Juneau Assembly seat shared their views on a variety of topics at Friday's Juneau Chamber of Commerce roundtable luncheon.
Businessman Chuck Collins and sitting Assembly member and Big Brothers Big Sisters director Marc Wheeler had the opportunity to talk about their priorities and answer questions on local issues. Chamber board member Murray Walsh served as moderator. In his opening comments Wheeler said he wanted to see more economic diversity, the line held on taxes, improvements in the existing Capitol or construction of a new one, and a Mendenhall Valley high school built along with a Valley swimming pool and recreation center.
Collins said his top priority is creating jobs and opportunity in Southeast Alaska. He acknowledged that change is needed; Juneau has good employment, but Craig, Klawock and Angoon are suffering from a 39 percent unemployment rate. He said his children want to stay in Southeast Alaska and he wants them to have the chance to work hard and make a better living. Collins pointed out that he grew a business in Juneau that now has 17 employees, all contributing to the local economy.
On the question of how much influence does the Chamber have over the Assembly, Wheeler answered that it should carry the same weight as any other organization in Juneau. He said he would like to see more input from the rest of the community and more participation from youth.
Collins said the effectiveness of a Chamber is only as strong as the leaders running it. He acknowledged that the Juneau Chamber has strong leadership, but as an Assembly member, he would be making his own decisions on the issues.
The question on the Juneau Access Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was stated as follows: "If the Juneau Access EIS is completed, there is a 99 percent certainty that it will result in the construction of a road up the east side of the Lynn Canal. If you accept this as true, do you support completion of the EIS?"
Wheeler said he did not want to get into a big debate over the road. He said that if the draft EIS is completed, the record of decision might be different than the findings of the draft EIS. Collins said he is for the road and wants to see the EIS put behind us so we can move forward.
On the question of building a road from Echo Cove to the Kensington mine project, Wheeler said he supports the mine if it is done right, but wants to keep Berners Bay wild and free and does not want to see a road built there. He says he has a personal attachment to Berners Bay and that's why he chose to be married there. Collins wants to see the mine opened, citing that it would aid job growth in the area. He said Juneau does not have enough good-paying jobs.
On other questions, both candidates support construction of a Valley high school, with Collins wishing to see that it is cost justified. Several tourism-related questions were asked. On the question "What negative impacts do you see from cruise ship tourism and flightseeing," Wheeler responded that flightseeing noise bothers a significant portion of the population. He wants to see more benefits to the community derived from tourism along with higher wages paid in tourism-related jobs. Collins said every town experiences some negative impact from the primary economic drivers in town. He would like to see expanded opportunities for new businesses in close proximity to tourist areas.
The final question asked by Walsh was: "If half of the community wants to do something and half does not, those who are against the something accuse those wanting to do something of creating a divide. How would you go about moving the community past this tendency?"
Wheeler responded by posing another question: "If 30 percent of the community is on either side of an issue how do you get the 40 percent in the middle involved in the process?"
Collins stated that he is all for compromise, but no decision is still a decision. He said leaders are elected to make hard decisions and take the lumps if necessary. The goal is to get the job done. The bunch in the middle must be brought into the process. He went on to say that he has visited over 600 people during his door-to-door campaign, and overwhelmingly the message he has received is that residents want to see the gridlock ended. He said he was amazed this community has been unable to build a golf course.
Philosophically the candidates differ greatly. Wheeler is a strong advocate for more public process, and taking a restrained approach to tourism development; however, he is aggressive in his desire to build a second high school and recreation center in the Valley and add more improvements to the Capitol.
Wheeler is usually one of the first to claim that any discussion over the road is divisive, but he is uncompromising over his personal attachment to Berners Bay. Wheeler has strong ties to the environmental movement and can be counted on to track with its agenda.
Collins is very independent and clear on his wishes to see an end to the chronic gridlock caused by what he sees as too much process and analysis. His promise to voters is that he will make the hard decisions necessary to move the community forward, realizing that not everyone can be satisfied.
The two candidates made a good account of themselves on Friday and the community is fortunate to have two strong people running for the area wide Assembly seat.
We urge all residents to actively take part in deciding who leads our community by voting in the fall election. If you haven't registered to vote, there is plenty of time to do so.