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By Dan Rudy 

SEC annual report highlights demographic, economic trends


By the time the fog finally dissipated Tuesday afternoon, the 56th annual Southeast Conference (SEC) was already underway at Wrangell's Nolan Center.

Poor visibility prevented the appearance of the conference's opening speaker, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, but there were a number of interesting presenters on hand to cover a wide array of topics near and dear to the region.

“It's just a great opportunity to learn about all of Southeast,” commented Chere Klein, the Republican candidate for House District 36 in November's upcoming election. “It's great to have it right there, front and center.”

At that forefront was Meilani Schijvens, director of Rain Coast Data, who delivered some mixed news at the SEC in the form of the 2014 Fiscal Year Annual Report. For three years now, the report has become a centerpiece for the conference, identifying economic and demographic trends for the Southeast.

“It is hot off the press,” she explained, only finished Sept. 3. The key to keeping the report useful as a guide is to keep it simple, sticking to final findings and incorporating colorful graphics. “Anyone can pick it up.”

Overall, Southeast Alaska is reaching the climax of five years' growth. A net total of 19 new residents and 19 new jobs were recorded for 2013. But despite the near-zero growth rate, the total number of residents, workers, and job earnings each represented new highs for the region.

“Last year was a record-breaking year,” said Schijvens. This continued on a period of growth which helped the region rebound from a sharp economic decline beginning in 1994 with the loss of timber jobs.

However, Southeast is also seeing a greying workforce, with the over-60s demographic increasing by 21 percent between 2010 and 2013.

“That's right people, we're about to become the new Florida,” Schijvens joked.

Meanwhile, K-12 enrollment has been steadily declining since 1997, by about 22 percent. The report underlines the importance of attracting millennials and under-30s to the region before it risks sliding into a new population decline.

There are some new categories in this year's report, including the effects of art on the region's economy. It was not a sector that could be tracked through conventional means. To make an assessment, Rain Coast Data analysts engaged 600 professional artists with an extensive survey. The results were surprising.

“One thing we discovered is art is actually not seasonal.” Schijvens reported that 92 percent of surveyed artists work year-round, deriving an average of 23 percent of their annual incomes from their crafts and wares.

The maritime industry is also being tracked as its own sector for the first time, which allows it to be looked at more comprehensively. Schijvens found that 900 new jobs have been created in the sector, with 60 percent of those in the seafood industry.

Southeast fishermen caught a walloping 479 million pounds of seafood in 2013, breaking records and expanding processing capabilities in the process.

Growth in the maritime industry as a whole – including 250 new Coast Guard jobs in Juneau – have helped offset losses in timber, mining and healthcare, as well as otherwise worrisome losses of federal forestry jobs.

“Government declines are going to be felt very painfully going forward,” she said.

Construction is another sector on the rise, however, with new, high-profile projects bringing in 42 additional jobs. “The new regional bird is the crane,” said Schijvens, on a roll.

The report in its entirety can be found online at http://www.seconference.org, on the Hot Topics sidebar.

The last time Wrangell hosted the annual conference was in 2005, and visitors have been introduced to a number of changes that have since happened. On Tuesday, attendees toured the restored tribal house on Chief Shakes Island, and the Marine Service Center was shown off the next day.

About 180 visitors arrived for the three-day conference, which concludes this afternoon. Every inn, hotel and lodge in town was booked solid due to the conference. To accommodate the remaining attendees, Trident Seafoods allowed the conference use of its available bunkhouses.

“Trident's bunkhouses made all the difference in the world,” said Cheri Lancaster, SEC chief financial officer.

Volunteers have also been integral to the event, fixing refreshments, directing lost conference goers around town, and even putting people up for the week in their homes.

“Events like this are really difficult if we don't have a strong volunteer staff,” said Lori Blood, president of SEC.

Speakers included industry figures, tribal leaders, government officials, resident experts, salespeople and civic organizers. Issue for issue they addressed shared regional concerns and promoted progressive, not uncommonly long-term solutions.

“It's a good bunch of people,” said Lancaster, who has been working with the SEC now for 16 years. “I like to work with people who are passionate about what they think, even if I don't agree with them.”

The conference is also an opportunity to raise money for education. The funds raised by the auction held Wednesday night will help fund a scholarship program with the University of Alaska Southeast. Last year's conference raised $16,000.

The scholarship is two-pronged, with some funds going to the university and others to cover educational travel opportunities for public schools. Earlier this year a group of high school students were sent to Fairbanks for a business fair, for example.

More than bringing together Alaskan communities, like the region's issues, Southeast Conference transcends national boundaries as well. Organizers are already preparing for next year's conference to be held in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

“Because of the transportation, they've always been a big part of us,” Lancaster explained. Prince Rupert is a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway System, one of two regional transportation options for Southeast residents, along with air travel.


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