Movers and Shakers

Movers and Shakers

ISER has 50 years as state's think tank

The state owes a lot to its original think tank. It’s almost as old as Alaska’s own statehood but has never waivered in its mission. As editor Linda Leask of the Institute of Social and Economic Research put it, ISER has looked at virtually every major public policy in Alaska since statehood. That means everything starting with the economic effects of the 1964 Alaska earthquake through the current debate about how best to manage the permanent fund. Fifty years ago, the newly formed state of Alaska got its first big bump forward in establishing a comprehensive research base. Today, ISER has grown exponentially, both in size and funding. The one thing that remains the same is its statewide focus. ISER started out as the state’s sole development center for policy-related research. While its results have inspired several other likeminded research agencies, it remains at the lead. Institute researchers, economists and scholars on its staff — many of whom teach in the University of Alaska system — have tackled almost every subject relevant to state development. Whether on energy, health issues, communications, fisheries, land management, rural development or education, ISER’s mission institute’s mission is to enhance Alaskans’ well-being through non-partisan social and economic research to inform public and private policy decisions. This could mean studying the economics of Medicare to analyzing youth populations through Kids Count. “Our mandate really includes doing research that addresses issues that are important for public policy and communicating them to people who can put that information and research to use,” said Hudson. This includes government, state, local and sometimes federal agencies as well as some in the public. ISER actually started out as the Institute for Social, Economic and Government Research. While it eventually dropped the “G” in its acronym, it maintains a great deal of work for those agencies. While much of its work is for the state, some of it goes beyond those borders. There is collaborative work across the Arctic with researchers in Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. Making its studies public is something the institute takes great pride in. ISER has helped establish some of the state’s most notable economists. For example, a lot of work has been accomplished by economist Scott Goldsmith. ISER Director Heather Hudson said she believes Goldsmith’s materials on the economic three-legged stool model is something the state has really seemed to know ISER for in recent years. The model describes the economy as being divided by thirds into petroleum industry, government sector and the other industries, such as tourism and seafood, combined. Seafood itself falls under the research department of economics professor Gunnar Knapp. This industry has encountered fierce market competition with farmed sources over the years. Knapp has studied the 1990s crisis from this and the subsequent recovery. He said ISER has been a tremendously intellectual place to work. “The most interesting and important opportunity I’ve had in my fisheries work is to study the dramatic changes in salmon markets and salmon industry over the last 20 years,” he said. ISER was founded on April 13, 1961, after economist George Rogers initiated its establishment through the second state Legislature. Rogers was an economic advisor to governors and consultant to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. He saw there was a need for an organization to collect basic and demographic information that the new state would need to develop policy and establish agencies. ISER was the result. There is now a fellowship fund to support junior researchers in Rogers’ honor. ISER started as a statewide research institute of the University of Alaska. It was first housed in Fairbanks, later moving to the University of Alaska Anchorage. The institute’s first director, Vic Fischer, said ISER had the only collection of economic knowledge around. Economic consultancies and research capabilities have expanded widely since then. Fischer was instrumental in the institute’s growth through the 1960s and 1970s. As a part of Alaska’s statehood himself, he made sure it never lost its full focus. “ISER of course is still the only across-the-board organization that has in both the applied and basic research set of interest and capabilities covering everything from resource development to health, education, etc.,” he said. ISER started out with only two people on its staff. Work got started with only a $5,415 legislative appropriation. Now that staff is 35 strong and is operating on a budget of $3 million. Funding now comes from the university with a large amount coming from grants and contacts from various government agencies. Some multi-year projects from national funders like the National Science Foundation also build that budget. Also, there are some funds from the private sector. ISER has done a number of outreach activities for its 50th anniversary. Programs have taken place in areas of all sizes, such as the Alaska Dialogue in Talkeetna. This included bringing in four former ISER directors from Outside. It put on a symposium on the evolution of Alaska telecommunications at UAA. And the Legislature has been briefed on its accomplishments and what lies ahead. “The idea was to use the 50th anniversary as a way to showcase what we do, reach out to the community both locally and around the state,” Hudson said. ISER’s mandate has not changed much in 50 years. Only its growth has. Faculty has expanded from economists to professors in education, anthropology and other applied social research. Research associates and graduate students are included in this work. “So we’ve kind of broadened not only the number of staff but broadened in some cases the scope of the research we do,” Hudson said. “But the primary focus has continued to be largely on Alaska, and the Alaska economy is still one of our core areas.” Current projects include looking into factors driving rural fuel prices as well as getting broadband Internet into these areas. There’ve been updates to the Native language map and collaboration on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The lieutenant governor’s office is even having research done in the election process. Another recent development is the new Center for Alaska Education Policy Research. Like with all research, the work is never complete. ISER has a number of projects lined up with some even looking beyond the next 50 years. The faculty is developing a strategic plan to examine the state’s future direction. Goldsmith is examining the factors for an eventual post-petroleum economy. “I’m very proud of what the institute has been and what it is as well with its promise for the future,” Fischer said. “One of the great things that I’ve personally enjoyed is still being affiliated with the institute and surrounded by bright young people who are thoroughly engaged in the most important issues for Alaska today.” Hudson said she felt ISER has been a “hidden gem” that’s held in such high regard by those who know about it but the need to increase its visibility and diversify its support services is still there. “We’ve been extremely pleased with the response we’ve gotten this year for our 50th anniversary from people, not only the clients in Anchorage but hearing from Native people and people in communities around the state that they really value our research and put it to use and look to us when they have research questions. So that’s really gratifying and we hope to build on that.” “A lot of people there have thought carefully about Alaska for a long time with,” said Knapp. “It’s important to have that breadth of knowledge. A lot of these discussions in Alaska have been repeated for decades. Folks here have studied these issues in the past and can bring them out.”

Movers & Shakers November 2011

Injured firefighter on road to recovery

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Dressed in a blue uniform, Larry Hodges smiles easily, cracking jokes with his fellow Fort Wainwright Fire Department members. Though he and his friends have been sharing laughs for years, his position at the department changed after an incident last spring. Hodges was walking to his camp at Arctic Man in April, when a snowmachine with two riders ran him over. Both of Hodges' legs were badly broken, but the two riders hopped back on the snowmachine and drove off. Hodges' friend, Dan Lepley called after them to stop, but the pair was never found. Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen says the case remains open, and officials encourage anyone with information about the incident to come forward. Days after the incident, Hodges underwent surgery in Fairbanks where doctors inserted two titanium rods to replace tibias that were splintered in the incident. He was told to stay off his left leg for four to six weeks and off his right leg for three to six months. He began exercising again in late May. Since then, Hodges has lost more than 25 pounds using a treadmill, walking outdoors and biking. In mid-September, a couple groups of his supporters — the Ladies of Leisure and Susan's Club of Uncoachable Men — took him on a 30-mile bike ride past Fox. Toward the end, Hodges was worn out and needed pushing from some fellow bicyclists. "I couldn't have done it without the support of the club," he wrote in an email. "They really are a special group of people." More recently, Hodges has been taking walks anywhere from two to six miles long. Sometimes he takes his old dog with him, who can keep pace well. Hodges keeps track of his distance and times. His record is a 14-minute, 44-second mile. That day, which was last week, he walked four miles in less than an hour. "After I get about a mile into me, I loosen up a little more," he said. After the hit and run, Hodges appealed to his assailants to come forward. In April, he said he just wanted someone to own up to the accident and apologize. "At first I might have been a little angry with it," he said, but now he sees his situation in a different light. "I don't know if anybody could have recovered as fast," he said. Hodges was able to go back to a job with his department and receive insurance benefits. "I enjoy the challenges. This was a test." Hodges is nowhere near being back to normal — his bones are still in their growing stages. His legs tell the story of his injuries. Scars dot the areas where screws have been removed from the mending bones, and large knots identify the growing bone masses. On X-rays, between the shards of existing bone, it looks like fluff is growing. He doesn't know how long it will take to heal, but he has been busy trying to help the process. Thursday, Hodges was at work at Fort Wainwright's Fire Station 3. He used to be a fire engine captain, but now doctor's orders keep him away from the trucks. He has been put in an administrative position mapping buildings on post to make it easier to fight fires with quick decisions. His maps identify hydrants, layouts of buildings, hazardous materials and other things. His new office is on the second floor of a building, and climbing the stairs is no easy task for him. Going up is much easier than coming down, he said. Many people say he looks great walking on level ground. "I'm a good faker," he said. Hodges holds no grudges against Arctic Man. Its creator Howard Thies, has been one of Hodges' greatest supporters, spurring a reward fund to find the snowmachine riders who left the incident. Last spring was Hodges' third time attending the event. After getting hit by the snowmachine, Hodges' friend Lepley ran to get help from Alaska State Troopers. Hodges has seen support from all across the state in his trek to recovery — his wife, family, fellow firefighters, Fairbanks Grizzlies and Fairbanks Ice Dogs. He plans to be fully recovered for Arctic Man 2012. "I plan on taking him back," Lepley said with a smile.  

Movers and Shakers Oct 2011

Majs. George and Jeanne Baker

  Majs. George and Jeanne Baker are new divisional leaders for The Salvation Army Alaska Divisional Headquarters in Anchorage. The veteran Salvation Army officers transferred from the Army’s Intermountain Division in Denver, where they had served the past five years, with Maj. George Baker as the divisional secretary and Maj. Jeanne Baker as the divisional women’s ministries secretary. The Bakers will be responsible for oversight of the Army’s ministry in Alaska in 16 communities from Klawock to Fairbanks. Prior to completing The Salvation Army’s two-year officer training program in 1983, both Bakers served in the U.S. Navy.    

S. Lane Tucker

  S. Lane Tucker, a partner in Stoel Rives LLP’s Anchorage office, has been appointed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska to serve a three-year term as a Lawyer Representative to the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference. The Alaska Bar Association recommended Tucker’s appointment. Lawyer Representatives provide support and advice to the judges and administrators of the 9th Circuit. Tucker has 25 years of experience in federal government contracts, construction, white collar and health care litigation. Prior to joining Stoel Rives, she was with the U.S. Department of Justice for nearly 20 years, including as the chief of the Civil Division of the Alaska U.S. Attorney’s Office and as trial counsel with the Civil Division in Washington, D.C. Tucker currently serves as the Alaska chair for the American Bar Association’s Public Contracts Section, vice chair of the ABA Small Business & Other Socioeconomic Programs Committee, and is the founder and Chair of the Alaska Bar Public Contracts Law Section. She is a graduate of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and is admitted to the state bars of Alaska and Pennsylvania.    

Sharon K. Elliott

  Sharon K. Elliott was named president of Alyeska Title Guaranty Agency. Elliott has more than 25 years of real estate experience to include title and escrow services and loan origination. She has spent the last 18 years as the owner and president of Alaska Exchange Corp. specializing in 1031 tax deferred exchanges.    

Kathleen H. Wescott

  Kathleen H. Wescott is the new behavioral health clinician at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Alicia Roberts Medical Center in Klawock. Wescott holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the University of San Diego. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in recreation therapy and public administration from San Diego State University. She worked as a clinical intern with the Veterans Administration Health Care Family Mental Health Clinic in La Jolla, Calif., providing marriage and couple’s counseling. She also worked as a clinical intern with the VA’s Wellness and Vocational Enrichment Clinic, providing alcohol and substance abuse intake, and individual counseling. She served as a volunteer coordinator with San Diego Hospice and Palliative Care, spent 15 years as community social services director with the American Red Cross in San Diego, and was director of education and family services at the Parkinson’s Association of San Diego.    

Alaska Airlines officers receive awards

  Alaska Airlines Capt. Steve Cleary of Federal Way, Wash., and First Officer Michael Hendrix of Seattle were honored with Superior Airmanship Award Aug. 18 by the Air Line Pilots Association International for their handling of a bird strike during takeoff at Sitka last year. Cleary and Hendrix were piloting Alaska Airlines Flight 68, a Boeing 737-400 service from Sitka to Seattle Aug. 8, 2010, with a full load of 134 passengers, five crewmembers, and a full cargo hold. As they accelerated down the runway at 100 knots, Cleary saw an eagle directly in the path ahead. Seconds later, at 130 knots (150 miles per hour) the eagle smashed into the left engine, which exploded and burst into flames. The aircraft lurched left and Cleary started emergency procedures to abort the takeoff and maintain control of the yawing 737-400. Cleary fought to stop the airplane and Hendrix kept him apprised of the aircraft’s speed and distance to the end of the runway. The heavy airliner stopped at the very end of the 6,500-foot runway.    

Evy Gebhardt

  Evy Gebhardt has joined Morris Alaska as advertising director. Gebhardt will oversee the advertising departments for the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the Chugiak-Eagle River Star (formerly the Alaska Star), Alaskan Equipment Trader, Alaska Magazine and The Milepost. Gebhardt joined Morris Communications in 2003, working as marketing director for the Peninsula Clarion. She has also worked as executive director for the Kenai Peninsula United Way, overseeing consecutive growth and record-setting campaigns, and served several terms as board president for the Greater Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, where she spearheaded a Buy Local campaign. Gebhardt also worked to develop the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race organization, and currently owns a Kenai Peninsula-based lodging business.    

Alaska enters into budding world market

When you think of exports from Alaska, fish, lumber and zinc come to mind. Fresh cut flowers wouldn’t be on the list. They soon will be, though. A niche industry is developing fast in growing and selling fresh-cut peonies, those blossoms much in demand and beloved, world-wide it turns out, for weddings. It’s a small business so far but it’s growing, and there seems to be an insatiable market demand at a certain, critical time of the year. That’s according to Ron Illingsworth, a grower in North Pole, who is also president of the Alaska Peony Association, a trade group that recently formed. Alaska peony growers had 39,000 plants in the ground at the end of 2010 and the number is now estimated to grow another 21,000 in 2011, Illingsworth said. The growers are all small operators, many, like Illingsworth, who also own greenhouses and sell plants and vegetables at retail or at local farmers’ markets. “Buds are what we ship, not open flowers,” Illingsworth said. “The buds, stems with buds on them actually, are cut at a time just before they would open and then chilled to 34 degrees for a minimum of 24 hours before we ship them. The stems are cut about 30 inches long so that they can be re-cut at the destination and rehydrated to open the bloom,” Illingsworth said. It takes five years for a peony plant to produce flowers that can be sold, he said. There are now about 25,000 Alaska peonies planted that are three years or older, according to data the growers’ association has collected, and more plants of an age where flowers can be sold are becoming available each year. It’s just a guess at this point, but Illingsworth thinks about 6,000 cut peony stems were shipped to buyers in about 15 states this summer, about half of the production from growers are on the Kenai Peninsula and half from Interior Alaska. “Last year our sales were much smaller. Most of us are just now at the point where we have enough plants that are mature enough to do commercial sales,” Illingsworth said. Different seasons The market niche is this: peonies blossom later in Alaska than elsewhere, so when big Outside growers are past the season, Alaska’s is just beginning. Several peony growers said most Lower 48 growers end their season on Memorial Day, which leaves June to September open to Alaska. So far the Alaska growers mainly serve brokers and individual buyers in the Lower 48, but there more interest from overseas and some small export sales have been made. Illingsworth said Alaska growers want to concentrate on building a solid domestic market and establish a reputation for reliability before attempting to ship overseas in significant numbers. The worldwide market is tempting, though. There are inquiries coming from places as far afield as Italy, the Philippines and China that Alaska growers have not been able to serve. Illingsworth said he recently took a call from a broker in England who wanted to buy 10,000 stems a week. “We’re not there yet,” in terms of the production capacity, he said. Illingsworth and his wife, Marji, have about 4,000 peony plants in the ground at their Lilyvale Farm near North Pole and have been growing for four years. Like most growers, Illingsworth started the peony business as a sideline to growing vegetables and plants for the local market. He and his wife retired from teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks a few years ago. Illingsworth started very small in peonies with 20 plants, then planted a few hundred the next year, gradually increasing the numbers. About 1,800  new plants went into the ground this year, he said. Other growers have more. Rainwater has about 6,000 plants at Glacier Peonies near Homer, and has been growing her plants for six years now. She is a retired nurse, who also raises greenhouse vegetables, although most of these are donated to the local food bank, except for what she keeps for personal use. Sue Kent, who operates Midnight Sun Peonies Inc. near Soldotna, has 10,000 plants. Midnight Sun Peonies may be the largest grower in the state. Kent has been at it four years as a sideline – her main occupation is as an environmental consultant – and 2011 was her first year selling commercially. “It has been exciting. One Monday, Oregon stopped growing, and my phone starting ringing,” Kent said. Near Palmer, Craige and Kathy Baker just started with peonies at their Grey Owl Farm on the Glenn Highway. The Bakers have been producing flowers and other nursery crops in their greenhouse, as well as selling sod, since 1998. They now have 2-year-old peony plants, and have another two to three years to go until they can sell the flowers commercially. Illingsworth said there are about 18 growers on the state doing commercial sales and about 75 members of the peony growers’ association. “Many of our members are people in the process of planting enough peonies to be considered growers. We have a 500-plant threshold before you become a ‘grower’ for purposes of the association,” Illingsworth said. Kent said the fact that the infant industry has formed an active trade association has impressed buyers. “The fact that we have organized ourselves and are working together seems to have impressed people,” she said. Research needed Growers can get several buds off a mature plant in a season. “A mature plant after five years should have 10 cutable buds. You want to leave the rest on the plant to let it grow. It might have as many as 15 to 20 total buds,” Illingsworth said. Logistics must be managed carefully, however. “We ship out of state using FedEx priority next day air. So far, they’ve given us the best deal,” Illingsworth said. “Temperatures are a problem as flowers on a truck at the destination waiting to be delivered for 5 hours in 95 degree temperatures will probably end up being ruined. Often we have the buyers pick up their flowers at the destination FedEx office rather than having them delivered.” Because Alaskans can sell when no one else can, they can command up to $5 a stem. That is about seven times the price in early summer when the big Lower 48 growers supply the market. Despite bright prospects for the infant industry, recent budget cuts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will result in USDA’s Agriculture Research Service closing in September, leaving peony growers without vital assistance in research, plant variety and nutrition just when it is vitally needed. “There’s no one left to help us,” said Sue Kent. “We’re building an industry here, but we’re left now to figure things out for ourselves,” in terms of scientific and technical matters. Illingsworth said there had been plans for the USDA center to become a peony gene bank, which would have been an important advantage for Alaskan growers. Researchers at UAF played a crucial role in the creation of the infant industry. Pat Holloway, director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a botanical research center, developed the idea of growing peonies commercially after meeting an Oregon grower at a greenhouse conference in the late 1990s. “He told me we had something no one else in the world has – peonies blooming in July,” she said. Not long after, two New Zealand tourists stopped by the UAF botanical gardens. They happened to be peony growers. “They were dumbfounded to see peonies growing in Alaska. They said we were sitting on a gold mine,” Holloway said. “In the cut flower trade, money is made by a new shade of pink on a rose, or a ruffled petal. It is unheard of that someone would get three months of a market practically to themselves.” There are peonies shipped from Columbia in the same time period, but they are container-growth plants and of poorer quality than those from Alaska. “They are not competition,” Holloway said. Holloway obtained a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s new crops program and began experimenting with peonies at the university’s botanical gardens. Word about peonies and the commercial possibilities ultimately got around in the state’s gardening community, and a mini-industry took off. Holloway said there are a range of issues growers face, including appropriate soils and fertilizers, weed control, disease identification, proper stages for cutting, and post-harvest chilling and handling. “Growers can experiment on their own but it is hugely expensive. The cut flower trade is very competitive and we need to build the best foundation we can for these growers to succeed,” Holloway said. “Every industry I know of is supported by public research and development dollars. This industry is just beginning, and dollars for research are practically non-existent.” Holloway has been in Washington, D.C., looking for funding, but the outlook isn’t good. “I was told bluntly that Alaska is a rich state and we should fund this project (with state dollars). There are far greater national (agriculture) programs that take priority,” she said. “Unfortunately, agriculture in Alaska is not considered a priority, and it is hard to get Juneau interested in peonies.”  


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