Southeast Alaska: Keeping spirits up as economy heads south

In the past five years, Southeast Alaska has seen some all-time highs in population, workers and workforce earnings, but the future is less promising.

Southeast Conference economic planners released a forecast this week for the region that, paired with Alaska lawmakers’ budget compromise that failed to address revenue shortfalls, forecasts potentially devastating lows.

“The State projects a two-year deficit of $7.7 billion, and that our savings will be gone in four years. Clearly something will need to happen to address this, and because we are so dependent on the role that government plays in our economy, that something could create a significant downward drag on our economy,” the report developed by Rain Coast Data on behalf of Southeast Conference reads.

Simply put, the projected state revenue decline will leave no area — municipal and tribal budgets, and private sector jobs — unaffected. Since 2011, Southeast communities have cut more than 200 jobs and continue to struggle financially. Declining oil prices have also made it clear that oil revenue can no longer be the state’s fiscal support that it once was, economic planners say. Without a supplement, 14 percent of Southeast Alaska wages earned from state jobs are at risk.

While the Southeast Alaska 2020 Economic Plan doesn’t spell out exactly what that supplement could or should be, it does paint a picture of where the market stands the best chance to recover ­— and it all starts with that good ol’ Alaskan spirit.

According to a Southeast Alaska business survey, “Southeast Alaskan spirit” is the region’s greatest strength. The overall quality of life and recreational opportunities in the area also stood out as advantages to doing business here.

The Southeast Conference report highlighted six areas where Alaskans should channel those positive vibes for bettering the region’s economy. Those areas are transportation, energy, maritime, the seafood industry, the visitor industry and the timber industry.

Economy planners say region goals should include minimizing the impact of budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, while focusing on road development. The top two barriers business owners repeatedly reported for their fiscal progress were transportation and transpiration. Transporting freight and people consume 67 to 79 percent of overall business costs.

Something different readers will find in this year’s economic blueprint is that it is more user friendly — using graphs and charts to half a normally 100 page text — and it is less specific about how to improve the economy, but for a good reason.

“We created this plan to be an overview that can be applied to any project,” said Southeast Conference Executive Director Shelly Wright. “Southeast Alaska is so different from the rest of Alaska. We’re so different from everyone in terms of our challenges, our opportunities and the benefits of our region. If someone finds their project aligns with economic development, they can cut and paste our words (for grants they need). It’s that easy.”

Southeast Conference, in partnership with Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, began drawing up this plan in March 2015 to ensure maximum input from voices across Southeast Alaska. Wright said more than 300 people — from small businesses, tribes, native organizations, municipalities and nonprofits — had a direct hand in its development.

The complete economic strategy can be viewed at the Southeast Conference website at www.seconference.org/strategy.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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