"Cook Inlet -- Energy for All Alaska" was the theme of the 2013 Industry Outlook Forum, organized by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and co-sponsored by the city of Homer. Certainly, there were presentations about energy -- oil, natural gas, electricity -- but the energy level among the 200-plus forum presenters and attendees also was evident.
"It was just great fun," said John Torgerson, executive director of KPEDD. "I think we accomplished our goal of having education seminars."
The forum also offered multiple opportunities for networking among representatives of industry, government, small business and peninsula communities.
"It was just so cool to see that much interest," said Kate Mitchell, owner of NOMAR and a member of the Homer Marine Trades Association. "I have been at these things in years past and it was not attended the way this one was. That tells me that there's things happening in Cook Inlet and people want to be in the know."
Having the forum was important for getting the message out that Homer is open for business, said Shelly Erickson, owner of Home Run Oil. "It's all about working together," said Erickson.
This is the first time the annual forum has come to the southern Kenai Peninsula. Prior to this year, the two-day event has been held in the Kenai and Soldotna area. As in years past, registrations came in quickly. This year KPEDD cut them off at 213 due to fire code restrictions of the space used at Land's End Resort. About half of those attending were from the Homer area.
This also is the first year the forum has included vendor booths.
"And I hope it's not the last," said Torgerson. "Most of our venues aren't capable of having booths. As it turned out, Land's End has a restaurant area so we just kind of fit in there for the time period."
For Roberta Highland, president of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, the forum was an opportunity to educate industry personnel. Not only was KBCS one of a dozen forum vendors, Highland made copies of and distributed the city of Homer's Climate Action Plan, which represents the city's "commitment to address climate change at the local level while simultaneously reducing the city's expenditures on electricity and fuel."
"We wanted to be a presence there for the environmental consciousness. That's why we attended," said Highland. "One of the things I try to promote is that we're all in this together. We've got to work together, got to come up with solutions that will really be comprehensive. That's a hard one to sell."
On the first day of the forum, Jessica Tenhoff, owner of Nomad Shelter Yurts, took exception to being turned away from the forum. Her loud protestations momentarily interrupted the presentation that was underway and resulted in Homer Police issuing her a trespass notice.
"She just simply didn't take time to register," said Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Monte Davis, referring to sold-out event and space limitations. "Then, just like everyone else who didn't take time to register, she was denied entry."
Davis, who facilitated the forum, said, "I think folks were very happy (with the forum) and certainly with Homer in general. I think the message our mayor delivered, that we were unquestionably open for business was wonderful."
A follow-up survey will help KPEDD determine how to improve next year's forum. "We'll know from participants as time goes on, but from what I've heard form folks, they're very happy," said Torgerson.
Workforce Development and Economic Overview
Alyssa Shanks, economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, kicked off the forum with an update on jobs, income and population for the state and the peninsula.
"We're forecasting more growth," was Shanks' statewide perspective.
Job growth for 2011-2012 showed health care leading, with mining and logging in second place. Looking at what stimulated growth statewide, Shanks pointed to the federal government as the biggest economic driver at 36 percent, with oil at 30 percent, tourism at 11 percent and seafood at 10 percent.
Job growth on the Kenai Peninsula was 16.5 percent in the 1960s, but dropped to 1.4 percent in the 2000s.
Comparing average annual earnings in the borough to other areas of the state, the Kenai Peninsula Borough ranked eighth at $42,156. North Slope Borough was high with $92,426 and Kodiak Island Borough was lowest with $40,345.
When it comes to population, the Kenai Peninsula showed only a 1.1 percent growth between 2010-2012 and Mat-Su in the lead with 2.3 percent.
Across the state, housing is most affordable on the Kenai Peninsula, with an average home price of $219,511. Juneau was at the other end of the scale, with the average home costing $318,140.
Kenai Peninsula Borough
Summing up the Kenai Peninsula as a microcosm of the state, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said, "We want to see economic development here, obviously a balance between economic development and environmental protection and we're going to make sure we hold you to those standards, but we want to see ongoing activity."
Health care expansion to "bring both access to communities and the economic benefits associated with it" is part of the borough's log-term strategy. The Kenai River Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage, is adding an industrial arts building and student housing. The city of Kenai is looking at additional capacity for its water-sewer system and, with regard to the borough, Navarre said there were road and fire service area projects in various stages.
"Homer has a gas line that's going to provide natural gas to Homer and we're looking at how to facilitate that with the possibility of a loan," said Navarre. "It's a win-win for everyone and I think will have significant economic benefits for the southern peninsula."
Recognizing the benefits to the borough of oil and gas, Navarre said, "The best thing is the people that they bring in. Good people. They're our neighbors." However, in closing Navarre said, "We have to keep in mind that the companies do a lot for Alaska ... but they're not here because they like Alaska. They're here for the opportunity. We, as stewards of the state, have to keep in mind that we have to negotiate on behalf of our shareholders because the companies aren't located in Alaska. ... As long as we keep that in mind, we can reach a balance."
Homer Mayor Bethe Wythe said this was the best and the worst of times for Homer.
"At this point in time, Homer certainly needs to present itself as a community that is open for business," said Wythe.
She highlighted Homer's growing tourism industry boosted by options for lodging, dining, fishing, outdoor adventures, tours and shopping opportunities.
While there's been a decrease in out of-state driving traffic headed toward Homer, there has been an increase in Alaska Marine Highway traffic and improvements to parks and trails have increased Homer's drawing power. A decline in the length of stays for recreational vehicles has been tied to poor maintenance of the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon, but dredging of the popular fishing hole last year is expected to attract longer-staying visitors, she said.
Homer boasts a harbor busy with commercial and charter fishing, marine transportation, oil and gas support vessels, recreational boaters, water taxis and tour operators. Removal of derelict vessels has opened up harbor space for more activity. The East Boat Harbor Expansion project promises more space, with an extended Spit Trail, float replacement, harbor energy upgrades and an exploration of tidal energy making Homer an emerging port and transportation hub. Having Buccaneer's jack-up rig at the Deep Water Dock also has been an economic boost to Homer.
Lastly, Wythe noted natural gas coming to the southern peninsula and the resulting drop in heating costs.
"It also is expected that competitive energy rates will make Homer more attractive to businesses considering locating here because of our beautiful setting, location on the road system and educated and enthusiastic work force," said Wythe.
"The main struggle for Kachemak City's mayor is that we have a working order from the council, which is don't do anything," said Kachemak City Mayor Phil Morris. "And they pay me not to do anything."
This year is different, however, with the natural gas trunk line being constructed from Anchor Point to Homer and Kachemak City.
Several avenues are being considered for financing the distribution system.
"The borough stepped up to the plate and that's very beneficial, but before that happened we went into the community and said, 'Any of you guys got money you want to loan the city?' Before the week was over, we'd generated $ 600,000 to benefit the distribution system," said Morris. "So we have that option, we have the borough option and we are also talking to other funding agencies."
And when this project is done?
"We're hopeful we can get it over and continue to do as little as possible," said Morris.
Seward has a lot happening according of Ristine Casagrande, a member of Seward's city council.
"We own and operate all our own utilities," said Casagrande. "We own Seward Providence Medical Center and contract with Providence to operate it for us. Providence also manages the Providence Seward Mountain Haven, elder housing with currently 90 residents."
The city also owns and operates a 500-slip small boat harbor and an animal shelter. The Seward Chamber of Commerce supports area businesses and the recently formed YES, Young Entrepreneurs of Seward, provides younger residents with ways to grow new businesses.
The Alaska SeaLife Center offers research, rehabilitation, education and exhibits. Seward recently celebrated the grand opening of a new community library and museum. The Seward Marine Industrial Center offers leasable uplands and drydock and shipyard facilities. AVTEC, Alaska's institute of technology, has an enrollment of 600 students, recently completed a new culinary arts facility and is gearing up for expanded student housing.
An international reduction in the demand for coal cut from four to two the deliveries made every week to Seward's coal terminal, but the over-wintering of Shell's rig, Nobel Discoverer, has been an economic boost to the community.
To all that Casagrande added Mother Nature's impact on the area.
"In 2011-2012, we had a record snowfall of more than 13 feet, followed by September 2012 flooding. We had a disaster declared, had an emergency operation center in city hall, had shelters, had roads closed, had well water warnings," she said "It was the perfect after-summer adventure. I didn't even have to buy an airplane ticket."
Seward Assistant City Manager Ron Long gave Seward's three-way test to evaluate projects.
"It needs to be economically feasible, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable," said Long. "We work with each other, find ways to talk about it together to improve the situation and recognize that everything can be improved to some degree."
Calling the community of 240 people "a little slice of paradise," Seldovia City Manager Tim Dillon listed the projects going on across Kachemak Bay.
"The numbers might be small, but, in perspective, it's rather large," said Dillon.
Commercial fishing and tourism drive the community's economy. The school has an enrollment of approximately 50 students. There are two homes being built in Seldovia and a new airport hangar being constructed for Aero Tech, a helicopter operation to be based in Seldovia.
"As far as the city side, we're very fortunate," said Dillon. "We currently have seven different projects going on, on top of the day-to-day business."
All seven projects are grant funded. They include a Village Safe Water project on main street; construction of an RV park with funding from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources; a $300,000 Scenic Byway project to build a gazebo that will serve as a rain shelter-waiting area for water taxi passengers; creation of a comprehensive plan; a processing plant; harbor upgrades; and a water filtration system.
"The future is very, very bright," said Dillon.