Gov. Sarah Palin appointed members of her Cabinet on Thursday to a new group charged with finding ways to make Alaska's rural areas better places to live.
Called the Rural Subcabinet, the group of top department heads will be told to look at two big issues, energy costs and out-migration from rural Alaska, and make proposals aimed at creating well-paying jobs, stronger schools, safer communities and better public works facilities.
In announcing the new subcabinet, Palin said that while some out-migration was natural, it isn't always.
"I want the Rural Subcabinet to look for ways to make certain migration is a result of personal decisions, not despair or a lack of choice resulting from economic pressures or other factors," she said.
Tracked by school enrollment numbers, population in rural Alaska has been shrinking steadily but dramatically over many years.
While high energy prices this year didn't result in a startling decline in rural school enrollment that some had been expecting, Commerce Commissioner Emil Notti said the issue of relocation needed to be reviewed.
"Several rural school districts did see a significant decline in enrollment, and 16 Alaska boroughs or census areas lost population between 2000 and 2007, while only five showed moderate increases," he said.
The new subcabinet was praised by some who have been dealing with the issue for years.
"It gets harder and harder to stay in these small communities," said Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, and former mayor of Pelican.
One way to help rural communities and rural living is to improve the infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, she said. It might be possible to use the federal stimulus package to help with that, she said.
In Southeast, Kake has seen dramatic out-migration, said Jodi Mitchell, president of Inside Passage Electric Co-op, Kake's power provider.
The end of logging in the area cost jobs, but the loss of the cold storage plant meant the fishing industry has suffered as well, and people have left to find work.
"If you don't have a job, you've got to go somewhere for work," she said.
Kake is a good example of where government investment in infrastructure can help, she said.
Expensive diesel-generated power could be replaced by hydroelectric power if Kake had a road and power lines to nearby Petersburg, Mitchell said.
Cheaper power from Petersburg could make Kake Cold Storage more competitive, and help provide fishing and other jobs.
"We hope it would alleviate many problems, not just for Kake, but for our region," she said.
Palin's budget proposal includes money for the Petersburg-Kake connection, and Mitchell said that's the kind of project that could also have benefits elsewhere.
Wasserman said keeping a few families in town can sometimes make all the difference.
"If you have two families leave, that's a huge chunk of your community," she said. "It might not mean a lot to Anchorage, but it means a lot to Pelican."
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