Economic forum draws praise of participants

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2000

Reaction was positive to Friday's Kenai Peninsula 2000 Economic Outlook Forum.

"The best thing I got was -- for as different as we all sound, sometimes -- everybody wants the same things," said Randy Daly of HiSpeed Gear in Kenai. "Everybody wants to be the best we can be -- the best educational system, the best environment, the best business environment. I didn't get the feeling of trying to lock anyone out. It wasn't divisive."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District organized the forum in Soldotna as a first step in writing a comprehensive borough economic development plan. Betsy Arbelovsky, the EDD's director, said the goal should be to help peninsula communities plan their own futures. She plans local forums in all of them. The EDD will incorporate what it learns from those in the comprehensive plan.

A host of business and government leaders took the microphone Friday to discuss accomplishments and plans. Some described progress and problems in shellfish farming, agriculture and logging. Peninsula mayors talked about cities' past and future capital projects. Other speakers updated the audience on plans at Agrium, Phillips Alaska Inc., Homer Electric Association and peninsula Native corporations.

Sponsors included the EDD, Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, Phillips Alaska Inc., Homer Electric Association, First National Bank of Anchorage, the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, the city of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Torgerson said the forum was a good opportunity for businesses and government leaders to learn about their neighbors and for legislators and schools to learn industry needs.

"I was amazed to see the average age at Agrium was 47. If we're going to train Alaska kids for those roles, we have to get going," he said. "I've had about 50 side meetings with people telling me what their obstacles are and what needs to be done."

Lots already has been done to promote economic development.

"But we haven't done it regionally and collectively," Torgerson said. "This needs to be an annual meeting. There were a lot of groups we didn't have time to invite -- Anadarko, Cook Inlet Region Inc., the Department of Natural Resources. These are our communities talking to each other. This is what we need a whole lot more of."

Seward Mayor Edgar Blatchford said the forum gave him a sense of community and how peninsula residents can work together to improve the quality of life.

"We all have an interest in keeping our local people at home, in creating job opportunities and working together," he said. "We'll probably bring this to the city council and take it to the chamber of commerce and look for ways to improve communication links with this side of the peninsula."

After the speeches and panels, participants broke into small groups and brainstormed the peninsula's assets, opportunities and obstacles for business and development.

Assets included quality of life, the diversity of the peninsula economy, the fact that the peninsula -- largely undeveloped -- has not yet made mistakes that plague the Lower 48, and lots of open land that could be developed.

Among the obstacles, participants listed weather, the lack of coordinated planning and goals, regulatory constraints, a lack of private land in public hands, the lack of fiber-optic links to other areas, and the strong, polarized opinions that often emerge from any discussion of development proposals.

Among the opportunities, they listed Internet marketing, telecommuting, prison, mariculture and agricultural development, marketing the peninsula's scenic highways, developing higher education, medical and research facilities, additional exploration for Cook Inlet oil and gas, facilities to serve the aging population, and development that might follow a pipeline to bring North Slope gas to Cook Inlet.

The lists are just a sample. Those compiled by participants were huge.

"When we get done with these side meetings and it's all written up, I think we'll see lots of areas where we can help out, either as government agencies or as advocates for our own communities," Torgerson said.



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