Private sector eyes Alaska's future
Most of the 2002 discussion on Alaska’s future economy has been focused on the annual legislative debate over the state budget and the perennially predicted shortfalls in revenue, the cash that fuels government, second only to oil as Alaska’s biggest "business."
The budget may have consumed most of the news and commentary since January, but there’s been significant discussion occurring in the private sector over Alaska’s future as well.
It’s been a discussion focused primarily on "what if" questions: What if there were steadily declining oil revenues, no congressional delegation with the seniority to pump billions of federal dollars into the 49th state, and contraction in state government spending back to the basics.
In other words, what if Alaska had an economic environment more similar to the rest of the nation in the entrepreneurial creation of wealth and investment through the production of goods and services.
Simply stated, Alaska is creating little wealth, measured by such factors as per capita income, private capital investment, or exports of products and services. Alaska’s economy is driven by oil revenue to the state and by federal expenditures, recirculated through the populace.
There may be a bright future for our children in Alaska if they happen to choose government as a profession. But if they’re looking for promising and stimulating careers in the private sector, our kids are more likely to think about seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
The discussion has been engaged on a number of important levels to think strategically about home-grown economic development.
The Alaska Humanities Forum’s 20/20 project is reaching out to Alaskans and communities to develop a consensus on our future 18 years from now and beyond, in ways that can be benchmarked as an annual scorecard of our progress. The agenda includes the economy, health, education, environment and public services, evolved from a first forum of some 500 Alaskans held in November.
Now comes the hard work of drawing out the opinions, hopes and dreams from Alaska’s diverse cities, Bush villages, institutions like schools, nonprofit organizations and industry trade groups, and Alaskans who might be called the silent majority. On the streets now is a citizen’s questionnaire on the five topic-area visions and draft goals to achieve them.
Alaska 20/20 is an ambitious undertaking, with most of the work performed by subcommittees in the five topic areas, supported by the university and other researchers who are attempting to tie visions and goals to solid numbers that can be tracked over time. In the case of the economy, a benchmark might be per capita income, prevailing wages or employment among industries.
In another initiative that began last year, a working group of business organizations has analyzed the reality of the Alaska economic base to identify the components that represent actual wealth-creating activity as opposed to pass-through activity from state and federal spending. Their goal is to develop a market-sustainable economic model that can guide true economic diversification.
You could think of it, for example, as "value-added" processing of raw resources from oil, timber, fish and minerals, or the creation of new enterprises in the new, knowledge-based industries, or capitalizing on geographic advantage such as air cargo hubs. In other words, cash-producing enterprise that can flourish whether or not government largesse continues to flow.
The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc., Alaska High-Tech Business Council, and Alaska Science & Technology Foundation’s goal is to stimulate public understanding of our current base, government and oil, in ways that can suggest new directions in economic development and public-private investment. The working group also is acting as the economic development committee for the 20/20 project.
Among the more disturbing realities of these efforts is the recognition that neither the state nor most communities have adopted effective economic development plans as a foundation for growing sustainable private wealth. Nor have they engineered strategies for economic vitality as communities across the United States have done.
These discussions and activity by business and industry leaders over the past year in part have stimulated a broad-based project in Anchorage to create an economic development plan.
Led by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. and a score of other organizations, the project has formed a steering committee, retained community economic development consultants and recently completed a first round of focus group meetings. The focus groups discussed Anchorage’s education, workforce, technology and natural resource industry assets and opportunities. The goal is to craft an executable plan of action.
Much has been written and debated in Juneau on the necessity for a fiscal plan albeit framed solely on new tax sources as a path to lead the state of Alaska out of its budget dilemma. No less important are well-constructed, privately led economic development plans and strategies at both the statewide and regional levels.
Instead of a statewide "we’re-going-broke" mentality, the economic development conversations that have taken root are exploring the exciting possibilities and grassroots routes to achieve them. Watch for them at a forum near you.
Sally J. Suddock is executive director of the Alaska High-Tech Business Council trade association and its Information Technology Careers Consortium. She can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).