Economist: Alaska has bright future in global economy

When economist Greg Wolf talks about Alaska’s economy, the multibillion-dollar deficit isn’t the focal point. China is.

Wolf, the executive director of World Trade Center-Alaska, told a group of business owners during the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday that good things are on the horizon.

“If I sound optimistic, and I hope I do, it’s because I am,” Wolf said.

International trade is a big business for Alaska, bringing in $4.7 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That represents 10 percent of Alaska’s Gross State Product.

Wolf said that production, in turn, affects 15,000 jobs in the state directly and another 10,000 jobs indirectly. Exports just equal more jobs in the end, Wolf said.

“Those jobs might be the only ones or at least the better ones in that town,” he said in reference to the opportunities that export businesses bring rural communities. Those jobs also tend to pay 13-16 percent more than non-export jobs.

But the potential for more is what excites Wolf. He said Alaska only ranks 40th nationwide as a valued exporter, which makes sense when you factor in the population is approximately 730,000.

“That’s a suburb in some places,” Wolf said.

The potential to expand this global market in a small (population wise) place like Alaska depends on small and medium sized businesses, not huge corporations, Wolf said. Of the 300 business with export ties in the state, 75 percent are small and medium sized. In his experience, he said new business owners are starting now for the first time ever to think global market before they think Alaska’s market.

That should only become more common as untapped resources present themselves, Wolf said. Despite the fact that Alaska has the second highest coal reserves in the world, the state only has one coal mine, a fact Wolf said others on the business scene find shocking.

That mine Wolf referred to is the Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc., and it’s located in Healy near the mountains of the Alaska Range. Empire archives show last year the group experienced waning exports with no coal shipped to two of the three foreign customers.

Wolf focused his energies on explaining that China is the country the Last Frontier should focus its energies on. Currently, what the state exports to China is 54 percent seafood, some that is eaten there while the rest is processed and shipped around the world. Wolf said the future of that relationship should shift gears and focus on minerals and ores, as China becomes a bigger buyer of natural resources.

“Alaska is on their radar. Our eyes are now focused on what happens across the Pacific,” Wolf said.

More than that, Wolf said Alaska’s placement in the north puts the state in a great place, economically speaking, to lead the country as Arctic exploration moves forward.

“Alaska makes (the United States) an Arctic nation,” Wolf said. “Who knows more about this than we do? This is our backyard. Opportunities are coming.”

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