Russian visitors are more than just tourists

Delegation studies Kenai’s relationship with businesses

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2006

They marveled at glaciers and active volcanoes during a flight-seeing tour.

They were surprised and pleased to see oil rigs coexisting with a wildlife-friendly environment.

They were impressed by the care Kenai takes of its children and elderly.

Mainly, though, representatives from the city of Boishoy Kamen, Russia spent last week learning the tools of local trade.

Kenai and Boishoy Kamen partnered for the purposes of mutual learning less than a year ago with the help of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). Kenai City Council member Linda Swarner and First National Bank Manager Jason Carroll visited Boishoy in March to make initial contact, and last week two Boishoy Kamen representatives arrived for a series of work sessions with the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Economic Development District and to tour the city’s administrative facilities.

To hear them tell the tale — through Kenai-area translator Gregory Weissenberg — they learned a lot.

“We wanted to see in which way the local administration interacts with business,” said Nina Kovtun, the economic department director for the Russian city of 39,000. “What we saw, we really liked.”

Kovtun was on the Kenai Peninsula until Friday night with Far Eastern National Technical University Director Alexander Andryukhin and Elena Vershinina, a Russian representative of ICMA.

The three toured city departments, visited the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward and Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River campus and met with Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage. Most of their time, though, was spent working on an action plan for developing a business incubation center for Boishoy Kamen.

According to Kovtun, the goals of her city’s center will closely resemble those of the EDD: to provide consulting services for small business start-ups, help them with planning and marketing and to connect willing entrepreneurs with needed training in computers and accounting.

Since the March visit from the Kenai delegation, the Boishoy Kamen reps have found an office for their city’s center and is moving ahead with plans to fill it with resources.

“As we speak, we have determined the staff that will be working with us,” Andryukhin said. He and Kovtun have tapped three members of the Boishoy Kamen business community for the positions, he said.

Kovtun and Andryukhin each spoke of challenges unique to their country in general and their city specifically. Beyond the hiccups Russia’s relative inexperience as a market economy causes nationwide, Boishoy Kamen is technically still a “closed city.”

That status means its market sectors are still purposefully intertwined with the local government. The city restricts who can live, do business or visit there, largely because of nuclear materials developed and manufactured there during the Soviet era and the city’s current efforts to dispose of those materials.

Kovtun said the city’s being closed helps protect such materials from falling into the hands of terrorists, but it also stresses the business community and strains municipal resources.

The far-reaching responsibilities of the municipality make it difficult, she said, stretch thin the resources necessary to heat apartment buildings, run day care centers or maintain cultural and recreational facilities.

Boosting the private sector should boost Boishoy’s ability to tackle such problems, Kovtun said.

“We would like our local economy to become more diversified so we can be less reliant on the municipality,” she said.

Overcoming the obstacles of that reliance factored heavily into the development of their action plan this week. The process was illuminating for the Russian delegation, but the learning went both ways.

“For me, working with them has been an eye-opening experience,” said Dee Gaddis, program manager for the EDD. “We’re really lucky to have what we have.”

Gaddis, who worked with the Russians daily during their visit, will go to Boishoy Kamen in late September or early October. There, she will help the group identify possible areas for business development, provide feedback on the work it does between now and then, and look into possible cross-border business ventures.

According to Susan Cosner, a Washington, D.C.-based representative of the ICMA, the program’s partnerships are meant to be mutually beneficial.

“We really do promote those longer-term connections,” Cosner said.

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