The Southeast Conference was formed 45 years by a group of business and government leaders throughout Southeast Alaska to address the need for a state ferry system. The annual meeting this past week in Craig drew an all time record attendance of 225. Juneau was well-represented at the meeting by city officials, local political candidates, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska Committee, and a variety of other governmental interests and private sector organizations.
The economic recap for the region presented by Jim Calvin of the McDowell Group and Lance Miller of the Juneau Economic Development Council showed little improvement over the grim picture presented at last year's meeting. However, the record turnout at this year's meeting is attributed to an underlying sense of hope that things will get better in our region of the state with the coming change in administrations.
Choosing Craig as the site for the annual meeting also proved to be another reason for the high attendance. Craig Mayor Dennis Watson, his staff and volunteers did a wonderful job of hosting a memorable meeting in spite of the economic hard times his community is experiencing. Craig's economic underpinnings rest on timber and fishing.
Watson summed up the state of his community this way: "We got hit by timber, we got hit by fish, we got hit by 9-11. One, two, three. We have people with boat payments they can't make."
Craig does have a number of positive things to be thankful for, however. Craig is a strong and resilient community with forward-thinking leadership. The town has a beautiful new high school, which is a source of community pride. Thanks in part to the Southeast Conference, a regional authority was created to address the need for ferry service to Prince of Wales Island.
Today the Inter-island Ferry Authority is a reality, efficiently shuttling passengers, vehicles and freight between Ketchikan and the island. Craig also has a new, high-tech sawmill and a good system of roads connecting it to other small communities on the island.
The hard-surfaced highways connecting Hollis, Craig, Klawock and Thorne Bay are old U.S. Forest Service roads that have been upgraded over the years.
These improved transportation arteries are vital to Craig's economic recovery.
Southeast Alaska faces shrinking state support for its transportation needs. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facility's Draft Vision 2020 outlines a plan for the state's future that shifts funding for transportation away from Southeast Alaska to the more populated areas of the state. Fortunately the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act now being considered by Congress may provide a source of funding to shore up Southeast Alaska's transportation needs.
A concept entitled "Southeast Alaska Intermodal Access-Forest Highway/Public Forest Service Roads Transportation System Strategy" was revealed at the conference.
The plan uses existing Forest Service roads to tie multi-use ferry docks into a ferry linked road system. Along with new terminals, docks and ferries, small segments of new roads would be constructed to connect isolated stretches of Forest Service roads together. Some heavy traffic roads would also be upgraded to highway standards.
The plan would supplement the components of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.
The Forest Highway Plan requires a tri-agency agreement involving the Federal Highway Administration, DOT/PF and the Forest Service.
In order for the plan to move forward, communities throughout Southeast Alaska will have to mobilize and drive the process forward.
The Southeast Conference also would play a pivotal role in the plan as the umbrella organization representing the interests of all communities in the region.
Over the past 45 years the Southeast Conference has served as the region's leading advocate for transportation, energy infrastructure, economic development, and environmental quality. The organization took positions in support of timber, fishing, the establishment of the Southeast Alaska Electrical Intertie Agency, and a study to improve the Alaska Marine Highway System.
City Manager Tom Briggs of Craig was elected as this year's president and selected Haines as the location for its next annual meeting. The auction at this year's meeting raised more than $20,000 for scholarships.