When Kenai Peninsula residents talk about the future there are some recurring themes:
1. We must continue working to diversify our economy.
2. We must support education to the fullest extent possible.
3. We must do everything we can to ensure there are good-paying jobs for young people here when they complete their education.
That's why it's difficult to understand the reluctance on the part of some borough officials with asking voters if they will support one-tenth of a mill property tax increase to help pay for the operations of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai. The request amounts to about $15 per year for a $150,000 home.
The center, part of a worldwide network created in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, has as part of its goal to inspire students to study science, math and technology. That goal is a perfect match for what peninsula residents love to yammer about economic diversification, a solid education system and jobs for its graduates.
Let's examine the possibilities.
The Challenger Center plants high-tech seeds at an early age. Students who are given the opportunity to explore the mysteries of the final frontier while growing up in the Last Frontier are more likely to see their home state through different eyes. Instead of it being a place where nothing new happens, it may become the happening place for new things. That shift, however, doesn't happen overnight.
While we can all hope for oil and gas discoveries to bolster our economy and our finances, science- and technology-related businesses can and should be an important part of our future. That's more likely to happen if, as a community, we have a mind-set that's embraces high technology. What better way to get that mind-set than through our children and the visionary kinds of experiences they can have at the Challenger Center?
The Challenger Center also adds to an already solid education system. Traditional classroom learning is enhanced by the kinds of experiences that the center provides. The center's distance-learning component also links far-flung Alaska communities together, providing a great visual example of how small the world is with technology. That, in turn, is a powerful reminder that while Alaska may have climate, geography and transportation challenges for more traditional economic ventures, there are no such barriers on the Information Highway and in other high-tech ventures. Shouldn't the peninsula position itself to develop high-tech jobs for the future?
As far as keeping young people in the state, what better way to do that then with cutting-edge educational and economic opportunities? The Challenger Center can be one of the tools that bring the two components together if residents are willing to expand their horizons.
While there is plenty of room to debate the merits of accepting money mostly federal money for brick-and-mortar projects without any assurance the operating funds will follow from whatever source, that debate does little to solve the Challenger Center's current financial crunch. Without community support, there's the risk that there may be a high-tech center collecting cobwebs because peninsula residents failed to catch the vision that this center could be a vital building block to economic diversification, educational opportunity and, eventually, high-tech jobs for graduates because it helped create a high-tech climate.
Those who see the center as a "Kenai" project and thus undeserving of boroughwide support are sadly mistaken. The center was conceived and birthed as an opportunity not just for the peninsula, but for the entire state. It deserves the entire peninsula's support.
While some assembly members may not think the Challenger Center is worth a small tax increase, their beliefs should not determine whether voters have their say. The assembly should approve the resolution putting the question before voters, and let voters decide. If voters lack the vision to support the Challenger Center, then so be it.
The real question before the borough assembly and peninsula residents is this: Are we willing to put our money where our mouths are?
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