Economic forum: Success lies in peninsula communities

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

The same message was stressed over and over again Friday at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Opportunities Forum: Home is where the money is.

The forum, which was hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Inc. and sponsored by ConocoPhillips, HEA, USDA Rural Development and KeyBank, was held at Kenai Peninsula College and consisted of a day-long series of presentations on everything from gold mining to tourism marketing.

Despite the diversity of topics, however, presenters rarely strayed from the idea that in order to grow the peninsula's economy, local resources and talents need to be taken advantage of.

Seward business owner Tom Tougas stressed the importance of developing local resources and businesses as opposed to trying to attract industries from elsewhere in the world something that is often unrealistic and impractical for the peninsula's small cities.

"I think the community wants the people who are there to be successful, and we don't want something that is going to be controlled by someone who is 5,000 miles away," Tougas said.

EDD Director John Parker agreed with Tougas' point that the key to economic development lies with existing business leaders and community members.

"Growing the economy from the inside out is the way to go," Parker said.

Perhaps no speaker Friday stressed that point more than John Faulkner, a Kenai developer who is working on an ambitious remodeling project at the former Ward's Cove cannery facility on the Kenai River.

Faulkner said he's a bit of a maverick in the tourism industry, in that he believes the future of the peninsula's tourism industry lies not with visitors from Outside, but individual travelers from here in Alaska.

"When I speak of tourism, to me, tourism is Alaskans," Faulkner said.

He pointed to statistics that show that as much as 70 percent of Alaska's tourism revenues are generated by Alaskans themselves.

"That's a humbling statistic," he said.

He said there is a need to market the peninsula as a separate, unique region of Alaska both to other Alaskans and tourists from the Lower 48 and elsewhere.

"It is my belief that we should focus on in-state first, because the out-of-state follows," he said.

Faulkner also pointed out that opportunities within the tourism industry on the peninsula are vast, and he pointed to his current Kenai Landing project at the cannery as an example of seeking and finding an opportunity in the area.

"I tend to focus on our front yard," Faulkner said. "... There are opportunities like that everywhere."

One big idea that lies literally in the peninsula's front yard could present a major opportunity on several economic development fronts.

Bill Popp, the Kenai Peninsula Borough's oil and gas liaison, presented an update on the proposed Pebble gold mine across Cook Inlet near Lake Iliamna. Popp said although the proposed mine is outside the borough, it could open up opportunities for work-force development, education, energy production and transportation in the borough.

"There are a lot of facets (of the project) that rely on Cook Inlet to make this mine successful," Popp said.

Popp explained that the Pebble project, which is being developed by Northern Dynasty Mining of British Columbia, could turn out to be the North America's largest gold mine. If that happens, the peninsula could stand to benefit in a variety of ways.

"This is a golden opportunity for the Cook Inlet basin and, in particular, the Kenai Peninsula Borough to get high-paying jobs," Popp said.

Among other things, Popp said the project could mean the expansion of industry training facilities on the peninsula, increased ferry service within Cook Inlet and further exploration for natural gas, which will likely be needed to help supply the mine with power.

Although the mine project is still several years from becoming a reality, Popp said now's the time to begin preparing for the opportunities it could bring.

"It's an important potential project for the future of the borough," he said.

Following Popp's remarks, forum participants broke into smaller groups to further discuss the ideas by the 10 business people who spoke. Before they did, Parker took one last opportunity to thank participants for attending and said he was pleased with the broad spectrum of ideas brought up during the forum.

"I think it was truly a day full of opportunity."

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