What would you do if you suddenly came into $1 million?
It’s a question Seward’s asked itself after getting a hefty donation from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings to make up for some of its economic losses related to the pandemic. In May, the cruise line announced it was donating $10 million across six Alaska port towns: Ketchikan, Juneau, Hoonah, Sitka, Skagway and Seward.
The donation doesn’t come with any strings or a timeline. Chamber of Commerce Director Jason Bickling said that’s created a unique opportunity for the city to reflect on what it needs.
“It’s kind of an interesting thing,” he said. “Like, what do you do with $1 million?”
The city council brainstormed where it might send the money at a work session Monday night. Ultimately, it asked the administration to look into splitting the money in two — half for a developer reimbursement program to create more affordable housing locally, and half for creating more child care in the area.
Child care came up a lot at the meeting. There are few licensed child care operators in the city.
One operator told the council she’s been at full capacity from the day she opened in 2012. The director of AVTEC said the lack of child care is a barrier for students with kids.
“Every business in town, almost, is hurting for employees,” said council member Sharyl Seese. “There are so many of them that have to stay home with their children. That is why we in Seward do not have things open.”
It’s a problem statewide, too. Economists say insufficient child care is part of what’s keeping the workforce from rebounding in Alaska.
The portion of the donation that would go to childcare would support Happy Youth Programs and Educational Resources, or HYPER, a local group that’s looking to fill the childcare gap in Seward. HYPER said Seward has a childcare center that’s stood vacant for years but could be functioning in no time if it had money to open it up.
Some council members said they worried about putting a one-time donation toward childcare and not following up on recurring expenses, like utilities. Terry said HYPER could leverage the $500,000 as it looks for more funding elsewhere.
Assistant City Manager Stephen Sowell said businesses report a lack of child care and affordable housing as the biggest barriers to staffing. And he said that’s the kind of problem Norwegian’s donation was supposed to address.
“The goal was to do something big and impactful,” he said.
The council also considered putting money toward beautification projects and sidewalk repairs. Terry said the idea to split the money in two is not a final decision — the city administration and council both will have more discussions on the matter.