More than single egg in peninsula's economic basket

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2005

The proverb goes "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he."

Is it possible the same goes for how a community thinks? Take, for example, the Kenai Peninsula's current economic situation, keeping in mind the likely closing of Agrium Inc.'s Nikiski fertilizer plant. Will that one event place the peninsula into an economic tailspin from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover? Or, is it just a blip, albeit a significant one, on the community's ever-changing economic landscape?

If the proverb can be applied to communities, the answer lies in how we as a community respond to the event. Is this an insurmountable obstacle or an opportunity in disguise? Surely to those Agrium employees losing their jobs, it is almost impossible to see any kind of silver lining in the plant's closure. We don't want to minimize the harm to them and their families.

At the same time, the community's response needs to put the plant's closing into a broad perspective. If we as a community think the plant's closure will wreak havoc, then most assuredly it will. If we think of it as a momentary downturn — one which was predictable but which we hoped would never occur — then we likely place ourselves in a better position to weather the economic storm the closure will bring.

One of the strengths of the peninsula's economy is its diversity, but as state analysts have noted that diversity does not guarantee economic health.

"Struggles and periods of economic woe do come, and the past five years furnish plenty of examples. But when one of the sectors goes through a period of difficulty the others keep the overall economy afloat," wrote Neal Fried and Brigitta Windisch-Cole of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development late last year.

While talk of Agrium's closure currently dominates the economic landscape, it's important not to forget some of the positive things currently happening:

n Two commercial fishers are in the final stages of leasing the former Dragnet cannery in Kenai and plan to turn it into a profit-sharing seafood processor that will handle a large volume of value-added fish, including Kenai Wild salmon.

n A planned $750,000 ice-making plant is scheduled to be operating at the mouth of the Kenai River this year, offering a big boost to Cook Inlet fishers and processors wanting to produce a higher-quality product certified as "Kenai Wild."

n Work on the new Kenai River Bridge in Soldotna is scheduled to begin soon. While that project will not be without its own set of problems, it's being planned to have the lowest impact as possible to those on the road.

n The $49.9-million expansion of Central Peninsula General Hospital is well under way.

n The expansion of several private businesses bodes well for the future. Those expansions include Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna, Three Bears in Kenai, a new branch of KeyBank in Soldotna, Fred Meyer and Sweeney's Clothing in Soldotna.

n Bookings for tourism-related businesses appear to be up for this season.

n New college programs are training students for jobs that are begging for workers. In fact, a well-trained work force is a major reason for the peninsula's economic success. As Gov. Frank Murkowski wrote in a November "Trends" article: "Employers know that locating here (to the peninsula) provides them with a pool of potential employees that will arrive well educated and trained to perform the job. ... The peninsula provides many examples of how a well-coordinated training and education system works for residents."

n The Arctic Winter Games is now just 13 months away. While this international cultural and sporting event is expected to bring visitors and their money to the peninsula, the Games also is serving as an important community-builder. The Games is a great example of how people on the peninsula come together to make good things happen.

These are not signs of a dying community. In fact, just the opposite. There's a lot happening on the peninsula — and why wouldn't there be? It's a beautiful place to live. The cost of living is relatively low. The climate is moderate. There are recreational opportunities galore in every season. Quality health-care is available. The school system is first class.

The peninsula has come through worse than a plant's closure. While the community can't think an ailing industry well or think new natural gas deposits into existence, we can stop wringing our hands over what's happening with Agrium and act like the vibrant community we are.

Those who are ready to write an obituary for the central peninsula need to put their pens down. To paraphrase Mark Twain a bit: The reports of the area's death have been greatly exaggerated.

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