In a visit meant to hear about everyday life rather than a sales pitch, Assistant U.S. Commerce Secretary Alejandra Castillo spent a few hours Wednesday meeting with Southeast Alaska Natives collaborating in the Spruce Root Development project after it was named among 60 finalists for a portion of a $1 billion federal grant.
Spruce Root was among 529 applicants for the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which is scheduled to award. between $25 million and $100 million to 20-30 regional coalitions in September. Also named as an Alaska finalist is the Southeast Conference’s Alaska Mariculture Cluster, seeking to develop a sustainable mariculture industry in communities stretching from the southeast to southwest portion of the state.
“The mere fact this proposal received such a high value is truly a testament of all the incredible work you put together,” Castillo told nine Spruce Root participants during a midday roundtable discussion at the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s Vocational Training & Resource Center.
Castillo spent about an hour Wednesday morning touring Sealaska Heritage Plaza, including the under-construction arts campus building where various Northwest Coast arts are being crafted, before the 90-minute roundtable. Bob Christensen, a Hoonah Native and regional catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership who is coordinating the Spruce Root effort, said he was initially skeptical about Castillo’s short visit where actively pitching the merits of the proposal was off-limits.
“I was pretty grumpy last night about this two-hour blitz with this group that has had skin in the game from birth,” he told her. “I’ve just been so impressed with you and I so feel it was worth it.”
Castillo noted the Build Back challenge is part of a suite of American Rescue Plan programs distributing $3 billion to assist communities’ economic recovery from the pandemic and build local economies resilient to future economic shocks. As such, her discussion included mentions of applying for sources of funding beyond the challenge grant and noting her visit to Juneau will help when she’s working with members of Alaska’s congressional delegation
”When I go back to Sen. (Dan) Sullivan I’m able to say I met with some incredible people,” she said, reciting names of many gathered around the table.
Each of the 60 finalists received $500,000 to help submit their Phase 2 plans for final consideration by the commerce department’s Economic Development Administration.
“This once-in-a-generation funding opportunity aims to strengthen bottom-up, middle-out growth in communities nationwide by leveraging local assets and encouraging collaboration,” a description announcing the finalists notes. “The Build Back Better Regional Challenge will help regional economies not just recover from the pandemic, but – in some cases – overcome decades of economic distress.”
The finalists include 15 Indigenous and 15 coal communities seeking to transform their regions. All finalists received $500,000 to help submit their Phase 2 plans for final consideration by the commerce department’s Economic Development Administration, which must allocate the funds by Sept. 30.
The Spruce Root project benefiting Native communities throughout Southeast seeks to create 250 new jobs, $22 million in new annual economic activity and $20 million in new infrastructure. Specific projects include work spaces for Native artists, storage sheds and kitchens for processing Native foods and medicine, road repairs, increasing replacement of fuel with renewable energy and training 100 adults and 50 youths for construction and forest resource management careers.
As the second Alaska finalist, the Southeast Conference’s project envisions growing a $100 million per year mariculture industry in 20 years, resulting in 1,500 jobs. It specifically mentions pacific oysters, geoducks, kelp, blue mussels, red king crab and sea cucumbers as its production goals.
“Projections from this 20-year goal, adjusted for inflation, could yield a mariculture industry of $1 billion in 30 years, given an industry-led, coordinated effort utilizing public-private partnerships and a statewide comprehensive plan designed to reach this goal,” a project summary notes.
Castillo opened the Spruce Root roundtable discussion by urging participants to throw out protocols for a visiting Washington, D.C., dignitary for the sake of a candid discussion about their communities’ everyday lives, struggles and goals for the future.
“We are not here in any way, shape or form to discuss the merits of the proposal, but we are here to discuss the coalition,” she said.
Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, said the struggle in her community is an economy of “dual survival” since subsistence is essential for food – not merely a cultural tradition – while sufficient cash income is also necessary. There is a modern-day lack of motivation among some residents to accept that lifestyle.
“It’s the males that aren’t doing as well getting the educational and economic opportunities,” she said. “We’re even having trouble getting them to engage in the traditional activities like fishing.”
Other hardships are factors impeding efforts to provide sustainable development and jobs, Worl said. She observed “Southeast people achieved one of the most complex Indigenous societies in North America…but that was stripped away from us.”
The Spruce Root grant will help “allow us to gain our own natural resources to support economic development,” she said.
Abrupt shifts in the Southeast economy over the years, such as the loss of logging in some communities, “was a change that we as a community had not prepared for,” said Jacqueline Pata, president and chief executive officer of Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority. She said partnerships with governing agencies, community investments from other residents such as artists and accepting widespread societal changes in environmental consciousness are elements of a sustainable future.
“I think that’s another key element in Sealaska’s goal for this partnership,” she said.
Castillo, while not giving any indicators how the Spruce Root project compares to the other finalists in merit, said she felt the goals being discussed match up in many ways with what the grant is intended to support.
“It’s a strong concept all around,” she said.
“I hope to come back,” she added, a wish whose implications everybody else in the room heartily agreed with.