The new director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District said it will be a while before she develops her vision for agency.
"I'm going to get my feet on the ground. Then I'll see what's possible," said Betsy Arbelovsky, who took charge a week ago.
"I'll talk to the people it's important to -- the businesses, the communities. I want to know what the people on the peninsula need and want. I'm looking forward to talking to folks on the (borough) assembly."
Arbelovsky worked previously as executive director of the borough's effort to promote Nikiski over Valdez as the terminus for a pipeline to export North Slope natural gas. She said she will continue to promote a Nikiski terminus as director of the EDD, and she will sit on the board of directors of the borough's pipeline task force.
"I see the gas line as the biggest issue facing the borough in the next 20 years," she said. "We're going to make every effort we can to make sure it comes here."
There is more momentum for a pipeline through Canada to the Lower 48, she said. That could cross the Beaufort Sea to the Mackenzie River delta or run to Fairbanks and down the Alaska Highway. A pipeline down the Alaska Highway also could feed a pipeline to Nikiski, fueling Southcentral Alaska homes and businesses, as well as exports to Asia.
"I think it's in Alaska's best interest to make sure that happens," she said.
She said putting the EDD back on track will be a challenge.
The EDD board was interested in her public relations background, she said, but public relations is far down her list of goals.
"The EDD has to be producing," she said. "Then, our image will improve."
An immediate goal is to revive the EDD's revolving loan program, she said. That has more than $200,000 in outstanding loans and $96,000 available to loan, her predecessor, acting EDD director James Elson, said in May. Arbelovsky said the EDD may hire a half-time loan officer.
Another concern is the EDD's present location at Mile 14.5 on the Kenai Spur Highway. That is the perfect site for an industrial operation, she said, but the EDD should be centrally located where business owners more easily can drop in. Remote from city centers, the EDD's small business incubator has failed to attract tenants.
Meanwhile, Arbelovsky said, she is concerned about the peninsula's empty commercial buildings.
"I think they degrade our community and affect our quality of life," she said. "Let's lease (the EDD) building and move into a vacant building that's more centrally located."
She said she has received inquiries from businesses interested in leasing the EDD building. She is researching whether, if the EDD gives up the incubator, it will have to return the $1 million federal grant that helped fund its construction.
"It doesn't help the funding source to have the business incubation center vacant," she said.
She hopes to put a lease proposal before the EDD board during its July 27 meeting.
This is the make-or-break time, she said.
While the EDD operates as a nonprofit corporation independent of the borough government, it has received substantial borough subsidies. However, the borough contribution has declined from $340,000 in fiscal 1999 to just $90,000 this fiscal year.
Last fiscal year, the assembly cut $50,000 from its subsidy and hired its own economist to compile reports formerly assembled at the EDD. This fiscal year, it cut $200,000. Mayor Dale Bagley plans to open a borough Department of Economic and Community Development with a high-profile office, probably in Soldotna.
"The EDD hasn't been able to get its house in order or get a director online," assembly president Bill Popp said during the budget debate this spring. "It's been kind of rudderless. It's lost the confidence of the assembly, and I think of the mayor, too."
The loss in borough funding means the EDD will lose the Small Business Development Center, one of its more successful operations. On Oct. 1, that will revert to the University of Alaska and move into the borough economic development office -- taking two employees from the EDD's present staff of four.
The remaining $90,000 in borough funding provides the local match for a $59,000 grant from the Economic Development Adminis-tration and a $44,000 grant from the state's Alaska Regional Development Organization. The EDD budget now totals $260,000, down from $450,000 last year.
"Given the federal money that comes in here, and also the borough match, people here have a right to get quality from this organization," Arbelovsky said. "I can't tell you what it's going to look like, but it's going to be more productive."
She said the EDD and the borough must work together to avoid duplication.
Popp said he expects the new borough department to take the lead in business and industry recruitment, small business development and promotion of the borough as a good place for businesses.
The EDD's new role has yet to be defined, he said, but it likely will become more of a coordinator and facilitator than a leader.
"I see the EDD having a targeted roll in the process of bringing the (North Slope) pipeline to the Kenai Peninsula Borough," he said. "That's a natural fit, given that Betsy was previously coordinator of the borough pipeline group."
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