The other day while speaking to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce regarding the flightseeing initiative, I made a statement that Chamber members laughed uproariously at. I asked them "how many jobs do we need [in Juneau]?" The statement was a classic political gaffe -- the opposition and a local radio reporter ran with it, a quote that, taken out of context, could embarrass the person who delivered it.
I do not embarrass easily and I will ask the question again, this time in context: How many low-wage, seasonal jobs do we need in Juneau? The jobs I was talking about (and the Chamber understood the context) are the $7 to $10 an hour, summer tourism jobs that were so numerous this year summer merchants were not able to fill them.
As a community we should examine the proliferation of $7 to $10 an hour jobs, and whether this is the direction we want to go, in regard to economic development. A person who earns $7 an hour brings home, after taxes, about $950 a month. Juneau 16-year olds who are experiencing their first paid employment situation might think $950 a month is a big deal. Imagine someone trying to pay rent and expenses on $950 a month.
Let's look at $10 an hour jobs: After taxes the employee will bring home around $1,350 a month. Most if not all of these employees have no health or retirement benefits. A person earning less than $20,000 a year in Juneau needs assistance or a lot of roommates to afford the least expensive rent, and will never be able to buy a home.
What does Juneau gain from a glut of low-wage jobs? Jobs for teen-agers, seasonal workers who leave town with as much as they can save, workers entering the workforce from the welfare rolls and transients. I believe that full employment is good and that any job is a good job when you are unemployed. I have worked as a maid, a waitress, a cannery and cold storage worker, and a janitor. But an economy built on service sector jobs is not what I think is best for our kids.
Juneau is in an enviable position in respect to attracting high-wage, high-benefit jobs. We are located in a safe, beautiful place with a ski area, a world-class trail system, hunting, fishing and camping, short commutes and access to a state-of-the-art fiber optic cable system. Construction of a NOAA facility could be the beginning of a scientific-technical campus in Juneau and our Chamber of Commerce, our mayor and assembly, and others in decision-making positions should be working toward developing a toe-hold in the new high-tech economy.
But they are not. The short-term thinking and a short-term focus of our elected leaders and business sector on low-wage, no-benefit jobs already resulted in lower sales tax revenue. Gross business sales revenue reached a peak in 1997 at $1,143,673 and dropped the following year to $1,073,900, rising just over 1 percent in 1999 to $1,074,028 according to the January 2000 "Juneau Profile." Sales tax revenue reacted accordingly (only half of all sales are taxable due to sales tax exemptions). Why, with a booming tourism market and a plethora of tourism-related jobs, is Juneau's business sales and sales tax revenue flat? What is going on here? Are 650,000 cruise ship passengers helping or hurting Juneau's economy?
I believe we are at, if not beyond, our cruise ship tourism carrying capacity. It's time to look at capping the number of ships that call in Juneau's harbor in order to preserve what quality of life we have left. Cruise ship tourism has left us with smog and water pollution that was unknown here a few years ago. We have noise and traffic congestion not unlike a larger city like Anchorage or Seattle. What toll is it taking on our landfill and other resources? With projections of a million cruise ship passengers by 2005 no planning has been done, and this year's 11th-hour attempt by our assembly will be derailed as soon as the current election season is passed.
We may have missed our opportunity to attract a mix of jobs, concentrating on high level jobs. Why? Because a few well-placed merchants and an assembly with myopia are calling the shots. We deserve better. The trashing of Juneau for the gains of a few is no laughing matter.
Kim Metcalfe-Helmar is a former member of the city's defunct Tourism Advisory Committee.