“Cluster” groups advance economic priorities

How do you improve Southeast Alaska’s economy? Business, government, and nonprofit group leaders met in Juneau this week to share and refine ideas at the Southeast Alaska Economic Development Cluster Summit.

The event brought together groups concentrating on forest, ocean and visitor products. It also included a group trying to develop a regional, renewable energy industry.

“The goal is to create viable economic activity in Southeast Alaska and in the Tongass,”

Rep. Beth Kerttula, Sen. Dennis Egan and USDA's Danny Consenstein listen to questions during the Southeast Economic Summit. Ed Schoenfeld photo.

says Ketchikan’s John Sund, who co-chairs the ocean products group.

“The measurement is creating new jobs and at least stopping the population drop in Southeast and creating more private sector investment and private sector business in Southeast Alaska,” he says.

Sund is one of more than 130 people involved in the four cluster groups since they began in 2011.

A cluster is sort of like a committee or task force. It brings together individuals, companies and agencies in the same business and geographic area. Members work on ways to collaborate, as well as develop new products or initiatives. Then they get together at events such as the summit to compare notes and see what they can work on together.

(Read a briefing paper listing economic-development priorities.)

The visitor-industry cluster, for example, has already worked with the Forest Service to increase tour access to Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier area.

It also wants to spread tourism beyond cruise-line ports.

“There are some communities that are never going to see any ships,” says Juneau marketer Sharon Gaiptman, who co-chairs the visitor products group.

“And so between them and our hubs – Ketchikan and Juneau – it’s about developing itineraries to capture those more independent visitors,” she says.

The forest products group wants to simplify the government’s timber sale process, especially for small mills. It also wants to convince builders to use more regional timber products, and promote waste-wood energy.

Co-chair Wade Zammit, of Ketchikan-based Sealaska Timber Corporation, says it’s been trying to avoid duplication with another recent group.

“We also began making the necessary steps for a formal process of communication with the state Timber Task Force, to make sure that we’re working cooperatively on initiatives and not creating redundancy, but building on what each other is doing,” Zammit says.

The group also wants Alaska’s Congressional delegation to push through legislation designating lands for timber harvest in the region.

But Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, speaking from Washington via

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich answer questions via videoconference during the economit summit.

videoconference, say that won’t happen anytime soon – or at all. They warned that the Tongass has become as controversial as ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“You all need to be pragmatic in your approach there. At this point in time the support, at least with this particular administration, to advance such legislation is probably pretty questionable,” Murkowski says.

The renewable energy group is just getting going, since there’s little industry so far.

Co-chair Brandon Smith, of Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company, says it’s looking at tidal, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydro.

“Big hydroprojects kind of have a lot of their support structure already in place. So we decided to focus on some of the smaller ones that may need a little help in becoming part of this industry,” Smith says.

The renewable energy group asked Begich and Murkowski to find funds to help with research and development.

The senators like the idea of using Southeast as a testing ground. But both say the money won’t come easy.

“I think all of us understand that to be more energy independent in this country, we’re going to have a diverse portfolio. We see some great opportunities but it’s going to be tight because there are the budgets that people go after because they don’t see the results right away,” Begich says.

The ocean product group is focusing on sea otter management, education and training for fishermen and boat owners, and salmon habitat restoration, among other issues.

Wrangell’s Julie Decker co-chairs that group.

“The area where the United States has been strong has been innovation and that’s sort of our key area where we can still have a competitive advantage,” Decker says.

The summit was not the end of the cluster groups’ work. They will continue refining their ideas and choosing which ones to push the most.

The event, and the larger effort, were organized by the Juneau Economic Development Council. Funding has come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which just committed another $100,000 for continued work.

You can watch rebroadcasts of the Southeast Economic Summit on 360 North TV. They will air Saturday, December 17th, from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., and Tuesday, December 20th, from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m.

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