Manufacturing matters: Momentum in a small but growing sector of Alaska’s economy

  • Alpine Fit owner Jennifer Loofbourrow seen at work in her Midtown Anchorage shop. (Photo/Courtesy/University of Alaska Center for Economic Development)

When Jennifer Loofbourrow walks through the headquarters of Alpine Fit — currently a 960 square-foot shop and showroom with a lofted office in Midtown Anchorage — she radiates enthusiasm for the eye-catching technical apparel she manufactures.

Women’s tops in Bering Sea Blue and Arctic Dusk Purple are carefully folded next to bolts of uncut fabric; sewing machines, many of which are vintage yet functional, line the walls. 

Although her energy is contagious, a successful business isn’t built on enthusiasm alone — especially when it comes to manufacturing in Alaska. Fortunately for Alpine Fit’s future,

Loofbourrow knows the outdoor products industry well. She previously worked for athletic wear company Lululemon, where she briefed company executives on the properties of different fabrics. Later, she and her husband owned a women’s clothing business in Ireland.

Armed with this background, Loofbourrow believes she can carve out a niche in an industry dominated by giants like Patagonia and North Face, and she’s committed to doing it in here.

“Establishing a capacity for sewn product manufacturing here in Alaska — the ideal testing grounds for any outdoor product — helps build industry relevant knowledge in our home state, allows us to adapt and develop products efficiently, and function as a modern business in an evolving industry faced with constant growth and change," said Loofbourrow.

For those that appreciate the opportunity to see how their products are made and meet the people making them, Alpine Fit is an exciting place to visit, especially considering the rarity of this type of experience in the state. Alaska doesn’t have a high rate of manufacturing — in fact, the state ranks dead last for the amount manufacturing dollars contributed to our Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.

Even Hawaii, an island state more than 60 times smaller than Alaska, has a higher contribution. Experts site logistical challenges, small in-state markets, high costs of energy, and labor issues as barriers. Regardless, manufacturing in Alaska has been growing, albeit with a few hiccups along the way.

Nationally, manufacturing jobs provide above-average wages, especially for skilled positions that require training but not typically a college degree. Additionally, manufacturing creates value and generates wealth that circulates within the economy at higher rates than most other sectors.

This is especially valuable when you consider that much of Alaska’s economy is resource extraction based and Outside economies end up reaping a large share of the profits. Exporting goods made in Alaska also brings outside money into the state. 

Alyssa Rodrigues, executive director for the new Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or MEP, center at UAA’s Business Enterprise Institute, sees a lot of potential for the manufacturing industry in Alaska. 

“We assume it can’t work, so apart from the MEPs, no one is putting a lot of time or effort into helping manufacturing grow,” Rodrigues said. “But there’s a lot of potential, even beyond local markets. One of the services the MEP offers is export assistance, and I’m looking forward to connecting with companies who want to sell outside of Alaska.”  

Part of Rodrigues’ strategy is to focus on three distinct areas: food and beverage, outdoor recreation products, and military-related manufacturing. Based on a combination of research and discussions with other MEP centers across the country, she thinks each sector can leverage their Alaska-specific strategic advantages into growth opportunities. 

Rodrigues points to companies like Triverus, which makes outdoor surface cleaning equipment for military, municipal, and private clients; Bambino’s Baby Food, which uses Alaska-grown ingredients and wild-caught seafood in its products; and Heather’s Choice dehydrated backpacking food which is sold in REI and Amazon, as examples of locally launched companies now selling their products in the Lower 48.

“I think others can achieve a similar growth trajectory,” Rodrigues said.

Besides exporting and creating well-paying jobs, another facet of manufacturing is supply chain redundancy. The value of producing local food, beverages, and other products is especially apparent in times of disaster. As many Alaskans learned during the 7.1 earthquake in November 2018, food supplies that arrive in Anchorage by barge or plane and then trucked throughout the state quickly disappear when they aren’t regularly replenished.

Considering that 95% of food purchased in Alaska is imported, creating redundancy so that Alaskans have access to food in the event of a supply chain disruption increases economic and community resilience. 

Manufacturing also offers opportunities for import substitution, which encourages local production for local use instead of importing products. Alaskans spend $2 billion on food each year, but $1.9 billion of that spending leaves the state. Keeping more of that money in state would generate employment and keeps local dollars circulating throughout the economy. Rodrigues especially enjoys doing her part.

“I buy a lot of ice cream, probably nine pints a quarter. It used to be all Häagen-Dazs; now it’s one pint of Häagen-Dazs, and eight pints of Wild Scoops (an artisanal ice cream shop in Anchorage),” Rodrigues said. “It’s way more delicious and I’m happy to pay extra to support a local business.”

Import substitution at its most enjoyable!

Gretchen Fauske is marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

09/18/2019 - 12:56pm