Before embarking on a journey, it's a good idea to have a map and a plan for getting from where you are to where you want to be. Otherwise, you're likely to wander about aimlessly, wasting precious time and money. You may see some beautiful sites, but never reach your ultimate destination.
Community leaders throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough gathered Friday to begin developing such a map and a plan for economic development. The 2000 Outlook Forum will be followed by community meetings throughout the peninsula where residents not only will clarify their economic values, but also will identify their strengths and weaknesses, set economic goals and develop ways to reach those goals. The Economic Development District will compile the community plans into the Kenai Peninsula Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
"Planning" isn't the most beloved word in many Alaskans' vocabularies. Too often it conjures up images of more bureaucratic paper work gathering dust. Or additional, expensive regulations. Or a waste of time -- "Instead of planning, we should be doing," say these critics.
The fact is, a good planning process can make things happen in a less expensive, more timely manner. It results in work that people can point to with pride. Planning allows more people to have a voice in the final project; collaboration and cooperation result in better communities.
That's why we encourage residents to get involved in the community economic forums that are being scheduled. The peninsula's economy is changing, and the better prepared we are to meet those changes and challenges, the better off the peninsula -- and all its residents -- will be. Some of the challenges standing in the way of economic development that were identified in Friday's forum include an aging work force; not enough trained workers to fill the demand in a variety of industries, including health care and the oil and gas industries; not enough training opportunities within the state; lack of planning, including lack of a comprehensive land-use plan; inconsistent and overlapping government regulations; and the attitudes of residents.
This last obstacle to opportunity is worth special attention. One group identified it as a "culture of dogmatic and argumentative thinking." Others called it a "colonial mentality." Others described it as "polarization," "regionalism," and competition, as opposed to cooperation, among peninsula communities. It's worth asking: Is that independent spirit Alaskans pride themselves on a stumbling block to change?
The good news out of Friday's forum is the peninsula has a multitude of assets just waiting to be turned into opportunities including:
Kenai Peninsula residents. They may be argumentative and dogmatic, but they also are an eclectic group with a can-do spirit;
The peninsula's natural beauty and wildlife, which draw and keep people here;
A diverse and abundant supply of natural resources; enough available land to satisfy the diverse needs of residents with room to grow;
A strong education system; good transportation infrastructure that includes road, rail, air and water systems;
The peninsula's quality of life -- a rural lifestyle with lots of amenities;
Good health care and emergency response preparedness;
A "fully functional landscape," which loosely translated means we haven't ruined this place we call home. Our water and air quality are good; salmon still return to spawn; moose, caribou, bear and other wildlife continue to live here, too.
The list goes on. You get the picture, because those are some of the same assets that keep you here.
Those strengths hold the key to limitless opportunity. Among the most important of those opportunities identified Friday is the chance -- indeed, the obligation -- to do things right in Alaska. We can avoid environmental harm as we develop our economic potential. We can learn from the mistakes of other places. We can be the model. We can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment; in fact, one is impossible without the other.
The opportunity for peninsula residents now is to become involved in developing the economic plan for their individual communities. We encourage communities in scheduling their forums to make a special effort to reach out to young people and young families to participate. It's their future being discussed; those economic plans need the voice and vision of the young.
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