Win Gruening: Thinking outside the box on Juneau’s economy

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By WIN GRUENING

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton.

This recent news item caught my attention. 

“The Department of Transportation said Tuesday that four parties have expressed interest in the Malaspina, a mainline ferry that’s been a mainstay of the fleet since the 1960s. It’s the latest twist in the process initiated by the Dunleavy administration to unload an iconic state ferry that’s been idle for more than two years.”

Two of the interested buyers are private enterprises located in Ketchikan and Cordova. Reportedly, some of the ideas being considered would use the ship as a floating hotel/restaurant, a tourist venue or alternate housing for seasonal workers.  The ferry has observation lounges, a heated solarium, a cafeteria-style restaurant, a movie lounge, showers, lounges, and a child’s play area in addition to 72 cabins with over 200 berths (plus crew quarters).

Sounds like some communities are thinking outside the box.  Is Juneau?

In August, Juneau will host the first ever Alaska Ironman triathlon which attracts up to 1,500 athletes, families and friends.  Housing issues are forcing participants to cancel and officials are actively soliciting residents to rent their homes during that time.

Looking at the CBJ Assembly’s adopted goals, housing has been the #1 priority for years. In fact, in December 2006, the Assembly held an Affordable Housing Summit.  Ten years later in March 2016, the CBJ hired a “Chief Housing Coordinator” and in December 2016, adopted a Housing Action Plan that listed 66 strategies.  What happened?  

Apparently, Juneau has been less than successful at brain-storming new solutions to this complicated and persistent problem. It affects Juneau residents, legislators and staff, as well as those visiting for summer vacation or work. 

Juneau’s housing challenge ties directly into its high cost of living and negatively impacts its recovering economy.  Of immediate concern is the visitor industry.

The cruise industry is poised to return to Southeast Alaska in a big way in just a few weeks.  Independent visitors are feeling free to travel again and the region should be an attractive destination.  Initially, the overall numbers will be smaller than pre-pandemic visitation but they will continue to build over time.

Are we ready?  Some very troubling signs indicate that we are not.

Anecdotally, the number of tourism businesses and the employees that staffed them are significantly reduced. Empty storefronts still line downtown streets and affordable accommodations are few and far between.  Hiring new employees has reportedly been extremely difficult as the local pool has been severely depleted.  Bringing new employees in from out-of-state requires an investment in recruiting, moving expenses, and housing.  Hotel rooms are expensive and limited.

Seasonal workers like pilots, boat captains, bus drivers, tour guides, and grill cooks are needed to staff the visitor industry and they will not be easy to find.  Housing availability, specifically, combined with some of the state’s highest urban cost of living components will make Juneau less attractive to potential employees.

Some longtime visitor venues may not be available or will have reduced operations.  Without this critical infrastructure in place, visitors may find that capacity constraints will leave them few sightseeing options other than souvenir/gift shops. That situation will only serve to exacerbate downtown crowding and diminish the visitor experience.

On the positive side, the CBJ Assembly has taken a huge step (outside the box) in preliminarily approving an expansion of summer and winter operations for Eaglecrest Ski Area with the purchase of a gondola.  This would come online in the summer of 2023 and will help disperse visitors, potentially eliminate the ski area subsidy, and provide a logical alternative for existing Eaglecrest employees to work year-round.

But the overall increased need for affordable housing (especially seasonal) has taken a back seat to splashy mega-projects like the Capital Civic Center and a new City Hall which, if built, are many years away and will divert funding that could be used to reduce taxes, stabilize our economic transition, and mitigate the housing crunch now.

These issues don’t go away by doing things the way we’ve always done them.  

Innovation, not stagnation, is the key.  Ketchikan and Cordova may be on to something.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

11 COMMENTS

  1. CBJ is more interested in drag shows than economic development.

    Part of the reason the tourism vendors are hurting for staff is the mindless insistence on masks by many providers. Most of the places they industry recruits from are not mask fans.

    Nobody wants to spend 16+ hours on whale watching boats wearing face diapers.

  2. Thank you for this article but I’m not completely on board with the gondola. I wonder at what capacity it will run and if it will be self-sufficient or capable of bringing in a profit. Our assembly has formed a committee that has the power to limit cruise ships and passengers. Add to this serious inflation and fuel prices rising with no end in sight. I do agree on the excessive spending on the arts center and a proposed palatial new city hall, out of hand and it will benefit very few.

    • I agree and disagree. There are a lot of potential benefits for CBJ IF (very big word) it works as advertised.

      My concern is the same as Mt Roberts. Great the 21 days each summer the weather is clear. The rest of the time…?

      What I do like about it is it’s unusual thinking for CBJ. It could (big word again) generate income/jobs in a community desperately in need of them. And could even be revenue neutral instead of a drain like the pools.

      I’m for rolling the dice on this. Makes more sense the the JACC

  3. I have idea, Remodel the old gal and use it for housing the Legislators , big savings and maybe a motivator to get them to complete their work in 90 days. Threw the years I have traveled on her numerous times and have found accomodations quite comfortable.

  4. Simple, move the Capital and when all those government people and lobbyists move out there will be plenty of housing.

  5. Most of Alaska has very little empathy for this challenge. There have been multiple efforts to get the capital moved elsewhere only to be thwarted by SE politicians and “old Money”.

  6. I would love to see an article written on how much and who in Juneau took covid relief money in Juneau. Lots of those businesses took fortunes in federal tax dollars all while the owners spent their winter in Mexico on the beach. A list of recipients of Juneau businesses and the amount they took would be great. Lots of new cars and big homes with boats in front of them I wonder how many people really “needed” the money.

  7. Juneau exists to host warring tribes, who convene for the purpose of common plunder. I suspect tourism is an inconvenience for most residents.

  8. The current Juneau leadership will never think outside the box. The CBJ “Community Development” Department is anti-development (along with a majority of the assembly). The City Attorney refuses to approve even slight property variances. Then the city develops its own land in competition with private developers (but doesn’t follow it’s own restrictive rules) and still ends up with costs of more than $150k per 1/4 acre lot. Juneau spends millions to build housing for the homeless at mandated Davis-Bacon (union) wages. Excessive Government regulations will never create affordable housing. Time for new city management, but this will probably never happen because a majority of people in this town don’t have an answer to basic questions like, “How do you define a woman?”

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