Going into last Saturday's economic summit hosted by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, one might have expected the same old folks to be grousing about the same old issues of the past few years, this time expecting a different outcome.
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The four-hour program, moderated by Renee Radcliff Sinclair of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce office in Seattle, wasn't the same-old same-old. Yes, the Kensington Mine and the Juneau Access road emerged as the cornerstone issues of the day, but many other topics that are vital to this community also were discussed, matters that are as timely as they are important.
For the 51 who attended the summit as observers, it was no surprise that the mine and the road elicited the most impassioned commentary from participants. Some of the rhetoric pertaining to those two projects, however, was little more than repetition.
We know that the Kensington and Juneau Access Project are by far the most important issues for the chamber and for the business community at the moment, so to belabor the point with further vitriol directed at environmental or anti-road groups just isn't productive.
Most of the summit's participants said that, for the last three to five years, their business has been flat if not in slight decline. Their biggest concern, most said, is that for the next three years or so they might not see growth and might even see some losses. That, all agreed, is why real and effective action is needed.
In addition to the mine and the road, the 26 economic summiteers spoke of needing to diversify Juneau's economic base, to prevent the exodus of state jobs (and, in fact, the relocation of entire departments to other parts of the state). Participants also want to provide more affordable housing and spur more construction projects, such as the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point, the Egan Drive improvement project at Sunny Point, the new Thunder Mountain High School in the Mendenhall Valley and the National Guard Readiness Center and sports complex at the University of Alaska Southeast. Streamlining the process for construction permits at City Hall also was noted as a major concern.
More importantly, though, the captains of business and industry touched on several other issues that must be resolved if Juneau is going to undergird its existing economy. One of those is to focus on the kinds of industries and diversification that can sustain the economy even if the capital were to move elsewhere, and, as one businessman said, to dial down the rhetoric and do away with the polarization and discord that have come to plague this community. That may have been the best point of the day.
The need for a larger and better-trained work force, and more land that can be used for light-industrial purposes were also oft noted.
The economic summit came at a critical time when. There's been considerable angst over capital creep, the local housing market has begun to cool, our population has begun to dip and big-ticket construction projects are beginning to wane.
The challenge for this business community now is to assemble some of its best, brightest and most capable foot soldiers into a task force (which it agreed to do) that can bring about change and resolution. Will that be difficult? Yes. Is that impossible? Absolutely not.
As one participant noted Saturday, Juneau is good at talking about its issues, but isn't as good at following through with action. On Saturday, the talk was insightful and productive. Now it's time for some action.
As an economic task force begins its work, its focus must be on solutions to the problems we face as a community and not as any political party, as a proponent or an opponent. Juneau is where we all live, work and enjoy an unparalleled quality of life. The glass before us is more than half-full and we have a great opportunity to add to it, an opportunity that mustn't be squandered.