Metlakatla opens bottled water plant

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

KETCHIKAN (AP) The Metlakatla Indian Community has started a water-bottling plant that managers hope eventually will employ two shifts of eight to 10 people.

After years of discussion, the community opened the 5,000-square-foot plant this spring and distributed complimentary samples at last week's Founders Day festivities and potlatch.

The water should be on store shelves soon, Mayor Victor Wellington Sr. said.

''It's a very exciting project and we hope to move on with it and make it a success,'' he said.

Metlakatla plans to market the water in Southeast Alaska and the West Coast, said India Semaken, marketing director for the Metlakatla Bottled Water Company.

''The equipment has the ability to produce 3,000 bottles per hour, 50 per minute,'' Semaken said.

Water for the operation comes through the municipal water system, from Chester Lake on Purple Mountain, Semaken said. The water made it through testing with flying colors, she said.

''Chester Lake is very, very pure water,'' she said.

Proceeds from water sales will go back into the business and to the Metlakatla Indian Community, which used a $500,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build the plant.

The tribe is still working on a name for its product and the label design is almost complete, Semaken said.

''The label will feature Tsimshian art,'' she said.

The company has four employees, but eventually hopes to employ two shifts of eight to 10 people, said manager Trudi Refour.

''We started processing the bottled water around June 13 and are just getting the system ready,'' she said. ''We're running on a skeleton crew because we haven't gone to full production yet.''

The business is ''blowing,'' or forming, its own bottles. It also is filling, capping and labeling them. The plant was constructed so that people can watch the process on an escorted tour, Semaken said.

Metlakatla faced a setback in its bottled water plans in 1998 when investors from Saudi Arabia decided not to pursue a business agreement with the Metlakatla Indian Community.

Water is a growing industry in Alaska, where the state's glaciers, rivers and springs are the stuff of legend. Hyder opened a water bottling plant in 2001. Sitka and Juneau have bottled water businesses.

While the market might appear saturated, Margy Johnson, director of International Trade for the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development, said people in Japan and other countries are interested in Alaska water.

''All over Japan, the image of Alaska is pure and pristine and water from (here) will definitely have a leg up,'' she said.

At the same time, Johnson said Alaska producers need to make sure their product is labeled and bottled to compete in foreign markets. She urged would-be bottlers to do careful market research.

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