Team effort stressed at forum

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

In order for the Kenai Peninsula to grow and prosper, business leaders, government officials and educators must work together to develop comprehensive and innovative strategies that will benefit the region's diverse economy.

That was the theme stressed repeatedly Friday and Saturday during the 2002 Kenai Peninsula Regional Economic Outlook Forum, sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Inc. and held at Kenai Peninsula College.

On Friday, government officials and business leaders discussed areas of strengths and weaknesses within the borough economy. One of the problems facing the region was identified as a lack of vocational and technical training for students and the failure to keep young people in the area.

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, presented a plan that would create a regional vocational-technical charter school within the borough. Torgerson said such a school would enable the peninsula to train young people locally for jobs in high-paying industries essential to the peninsula's economy.

Torgerson said a vocational school is sorely needed within the borough.

"Our borough has always proudly funded education and provides the best educational system in the state," he said. "Now it's time to show our commitment to vocational education."

Torgerson's plan could call for raising the mill rate by two-tenths of 1 percent -- roughly $20 for every $100,000 in property value. He said such a plan would reap substantial financial benefits because a facility would be eligible for federal grants, could charge tuition and would bring more state education funding to the borough.

"The state spends over $100 million a year on vocational education," he said. "Of that, our piece of the pie is very small."

Torgerson said his idea is not a new one, but something that should seriously be considered as a way to keep local residents on the peninsula.

On Saturday, the conference shifted gears and focused more intently on finding specific answers for concerns within individual industries. Participants went into breakout sessions consisting of groups of 20 to 30 individuals. Sessions were held about tourism, timber, education-health care, oil-gas, commercial fishing and small business development.

The sessions gave participants the chance to identify goals for industries to strive for. According to Jim Carter, executive director of the Economic Development District, the sessions were highly successful in getting people working together toward identifying common goals.

"Participants were folks in the industry talking about things near and dear to them," he said.

Carter said the groups came up with numerous ideas about how to better grow the economy. The next step, he said, is to make sure the people in a position to implement those ideas get the message.

"We're hoping to build consensus and try to deliver those concerns to the people who make the decisions," he said.

In the education-health care group, participants bemoaned a lack of qualified health care professionals being trained and utilized in the area. Suggestions to improve the situation ranged from developing programs that train nurses on the peninsula to lobbying the state to change its formula for education funding to ensure more money finds its way into the classroom.

If kids are able to receive more training locally for high-paying jobs, they'll be more likely to stay at home, Carter said.

"We've got good kids here, but how do we keep them?" Carter asked.

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey was one of the education session participants. He said he'd like to see local students get more opportunities to be trained locally for health care careers.

"The idea of looking at health care education from a borough perspective is extremely needed," Carey said, pointing out that health care is the largest single employer in both the cities of Soldotna and Homer.

Breakout sessions for other industries similarly worked to identify specific concerns facing the economy. Carter said that's exactly what the forum is designed to do -- get people together, get them talking and find ways to enhance the area's economy by working together.

"This is great. I get excited," he said. "The underlying theme of EDD is it's a vehicle to build consensus and deliver it to policymakers. We need to get out and start vocalizing this stuff."

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