Redesigned BuyAlaska program seeks to bolster state economy

  • BuyAlaska was formed to connect consumers and businesses and promote growth of the Alaskan economy. (Screencap)

In February this year, Katie Ashbaugh excitedly accepted the position of sustainability coordinator at Allen Marine Tours, a Southeast Alaska day-cruise operator. She was looking forward to helping the company mitigate its environmental impact.

“This was the beginning of my dream career,” says Ashbaugh.

She recently earned an MBA that focused on balancing profitability and sustainability, and was eager to get started.

“Simple changes — like making sure that cups and containers are compostable, sharing information about the cycle of trash, and helping passengers connect that to how we can be good stewards of our environment — make a big difference,” she said. 

She worked for Allen Marine Tours for six weeks, and then the pandemic hit. 

Like many Alaskans, Ashbaugh was furloughed in March and eventually laid off at the end of April. She remembers walking through downtown Juneau in the spring and noting the uncommon quiet. Usually teeming with visitors from all over the world, the streets were mostly empty and shops were closed. Once businesses started re-opening, the difference between locally-owned and non-locally-owned businesses was starkly apparent.

“Local businesses quickly got creative about finding safe ways for people to come in and shop,” says Ashbaugh. “But we have a section of downtown called the ‘tourist trap’ that’s mostly owned by cruise ships; all of those shops are shuttered. They didn’t reopen, they aren’t thinking about reopening, and it’s really unfortunate to see this part of town underutilized… imagine if the shops there were local instead?”

Katie Ashbaugh browses the inventory at Kindred Post in Juneau. Ashbaugh joined BuyAlaska after being furloughed from her new job with Allen Marine Tours amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy)

Ashbaugh’s sustainable business experience, combined with her desire to champion local business, made her the top candidate for the Alaska Small Business Development Center’s BuyAlaska staff position at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Originally launched in the early 2000s to help businesses get online at a time when developing a website was prohibitively expensive for many owners, BuyAlaska has been mostly dormant in recent years. With the onset of COVID-19 and the upswell of support for small businesses across the state, the initiative was ripe for a refresh. 

“People want to help each other out right now, and buying Alaska products or services is a good way to do so,” says Ashbaugh. “Once you purchase a locally-made product or choose a local service, it’s all part of a compounding cycle. You’re keeping money in your community, supporting jobs, benefiting the environment, and fostering a community culture.” 

Nationally, studies show that locally-owned stores generate nearly four times as much economic benefit to surrounding areas than non-locally-owned stores, and local retailers return an average of 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy. Additionally, dining at a local restaurant produces more than twice the local economic impact of a chain restaurant. 

Locally-owned businesses make an outsized impact on the economy because they tend to purchase more goods and services from local suppliers, increase the local tax base, and are more likely to donate to local charitable causes.

BuyAlaska relies on a group of stakeholders from across the state representing numerous industries, using their expertise to advance the initiative. One of those stakeholders is Heather Rhodes, a marketing manager at Alaska Communications.

Early on during the pandemic, Rhodes wanted to host a virtual breakfast for her team to help them feel connected while working remotely. She called a dozen different restaurants until she found one that was open.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of the restaurants were longtime favorites, and a couple of them still haven’t re-opened. I want to help keep businesses from closing, get them online, and show them how to access new customers so that they can start to thrive again.”

The recently-launched BuyAlaska website encourages Alaskans to shop local while also helping businesses connect with more customers and each other. It also offers links to business directories, resources for business owners to navigate going digital, and information about accessing COVID-19 support. The site is complemented by an e-newsletter and Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles.

Rhodes is using her marketing and business expertise to help reach Alaskans and change the way they make purchasing decisions. 

“On one side we’re making it easy for customers to find the local products they are looking for, and on the other we’re amplifying businesses’ marketing efforts and providing them with technical assistance. By supporting both sides we can make a bigger difference, faster.” 

Heather Rhodes picks some Alaska Grown produce at Pyra’s Pioneer Peak farm in Palmer. (Photo/Courtesy)

In Anchorage, where Rhodes lives, a recent report released by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. says that 70 percent of businesses saw their revenue decline during the pandemic and 43 percent made employment reductions. She hopes the Buy Alaska initiative will motivate more people to buy local first to help businesses recover.

“Instead of just clicking to order supplies, go see if the mom and pop shop down the street has what you’re looking for. Instead of getting your coffee from a national roaster, pick up something from a local roaster; we have so many great options!” she said. “And so many businesses are offering curbside pick-up, or delivery now. They’re making it so easy for us to support them.”

Both Rhodes and Ashbaugh are putting their money where their mouths are; in Rhodes' case, literally.

“My family and I are frequent fliers at Middle Way Cafe for cupcakes,” says Rhodes. “And then we rotate our coffee bean purchases between Kaladi Brothers, Steam Dot, and Black Cup.”

Ashbaugh recently took advantage of a travel package for Alaskans, and visited Denali National Park for the first time. “We originally planned on camping, but there were such great discounts we were able to stay at some really nice places in the area.” She can’t stop buying local jewelry, and loves to support artists.

“We’re voting with our pocketbooks,” says Rhodes. “And we want to see other Alaskans follow suit, and shop local first!”

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

09/15/2020 - 11:09am