Business owners push mine, road

Group discusses top issues facing Juneau at economic summit

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2007

Delays in the opening of the Kensington Mine topped a list of frustrations for 27 area business owners who attended an economic summit hosted by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Saturday.

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The other top issues the group agreed to actively tackle included a potential road out of Juneau, the city's declining young population, affordable housing, city permitting delays, capital creep and industrial land availability.

Many business owners reported their business had been flat over the past five years, and complained about a shrinking labor talent pool and property tax increases. They also pushed for more technical training programs at the college and high school.

Wayne Coogan, of Coogan Construction, said an attitude of elitism had taken over and was the root cause of the some of Juneau's issues.

"It appears Juneau is in a malaise of despair. It would seem to me that if your house is on fire, you need to get a bucket of water and put it out. This community is suffering from an attitude of elitism, and people want to have their cake and eat it too. ... We cannot sit by and let our house burn down," Coogan said.

Aside from the business owners who participated in a roundtable discussion, another 50 people were in the audience, including some Juneau Assembly members.

Tom Henderson, manager of the Kensington Mine, said when he came to Juneau a year ago, the mine was scheduled to begin operations Monday. Now they are looking at a minimum of a year's delay after intense opposition and a lawsuit from environmental groups.

"You cannot have a small minority group continue to find ways to delay your operation. ... There should be consequences at some point, that people can hold a business indefinitely from going into operation," Henderson said.

Operations have not started at the mine because Coeur Alaska and three environmental groups including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, are waiting to hear whether the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will grant another hearing on plans for the mine's tailings.

No one could be reached late Saturday from SEACC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Many forum members said they had benefited from the mine's business, and said Juneau's economic future depends on jobs the mine offers. They pushed for diversifying Juneau's economy, so that the town can better endure slow periods.

Geoff Larson, owner of the Alaska Brewing Co., said he has wanted to expand his business but is looking at a shortage of light industrial land available because of big box retailers moving into town. About 75 percent of employees who left his business in the last few years left because they were leaving Juneau.

"There are slim pickings in this town. And we don't have land to grow," Larson said.

The chamber brought in a representative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Renee Radcliff Sinclair, to moderate. Sinclair is also a Republican candidate for the Snohomish County Council in Washington.

She recommended that the group get organized to tackle the problems they identified, many of which were policy issues. She advised the group to do more to get people favorable to their position elected to local government, and attend public meetings on issues they consider important.

"If you want a vibrant business community, you have to show up at the table or you are going to get eaten," Sinclair said.

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