Sanford calls for Juneau to lead in Southeast Alaska


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In his first speech as Juneau mayor, Merrill Sanford called on the city to take a bigger leadership role in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

Juneau’s new mayor says the Capital City needs to take on a bigger leadership role in Southeast Alaska.

Just after being sworn-in Monday night, Merrill Sanford urged his fellow Assembly members to reach out to other communities in the state, especially Southeast.

“Join with them in their celebrations, in their sad times, and bond as a group like we need to,” Mayor Sanford said. “We definitely need to do that in Southeast, and stop this decline of population, and stop this decline in our region.”

Southeast Alaska’s population has been flat for the past two decades as residents have aged and birth rates have dropped. The state Labor Department predicts those trends will continue over the next 20 years.

But state Economist Mali Abrahamson says population shifts vary from community to community within the region.

“For instance, Haines last year had a larger growth rate than Mat-Su, and that was driven by retirees,” Abrahamson said. “So, a lot of this population projection information you just can’t know. Who knew people were going to retire to Haines?”

In the past Sanford has advocated creating more jobs in the timber and mining industries as a way to boost the region’s population.

Abrahamson says mining jobs in Southeast got a big boost in 2010 with the opening of the Kensington Mine near Juneau. And while timber took a hit in the mid ’90s and early 2000s with pulp mill closures in Sitka and Ketchikan, jobs in that sector have been on the rebound since 2001.

“It’s a very seasonal industry,” said Abrahamson. “But we are seeing our summer peak employment steadily increase for the last seven or eight years.”

Abrahamson says Juneau’s economy, and to a lesser extent the rest of Southeast, continues to be dependent on jobs in government.

“Juneau is definitely government dependent because of the capitol,” she said. “However, local government and tribal governments as well as school districts are often the largest employers. In southern Southeast Alaska they can be the largest employer in the entire town.”

Sanford says he wants Juneau to lead by example and he may find an ally in Assembly member Carlton Smith, who echoed the mayor’s comments at Monday’s meeting.

“We need to look to sustain employment in the community and growth of employment,” Smith said, listing off a series of goals for the community to set. “New relationships with our neighbors here in Southeast, because we have goals in common. We need to create a new fresh identity for our Capital City, and we also finally need to preserve the Capital City of Juneau.”

The Assembly will have an opportunity to get more specific about its goals when members meet for the annual Assembly retreat on October 27th. Mayor Sanford says he plans to bring in a facilitator to help with that discussion.

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