Wrangell needs to think about its future

Given my aversion to long planning sessions, whiteboards with erasable markers and consensus building exercises, I can’t believe I am saying this: The town needs a plan for its economic future. A forum to start making that plan is a good beginning.

Wrangell’s economic future is as cloudy as a fall day in Southeast, as uncertain as the state ferry schedule, and as chancy as winning a raffle.

Improving those dreary odds can’t be based on hope. Wrangell needs a realistic plan.

The chamber of commerce is sponsoring an economic forum on Sept. 30 at the Nolan Center, open to anyone with ideas, everyone willing to work, and all who want a community with stable jobs, new housing and more students in the schools.

“The goal for me,” said Borough Manager Jeff Good, “is to identify what Wrangell is going to look like in five to 10 years. Where do local businesses see it? Where does the community see it?”

It’s easy to look back to the years of two sawmills running two shifts each and a larger seafood processing industry that operated every summer, not just when the salmon runs are optimum. It’s nice to reminisce back 30 years, when Wrangell schools had double the enrollment of today — the count was 500 students in 1992.

And it brings a fiscal smile to think about the 1980s when the state treasury was fat with oil dollars and communities received a bigger share of that money.

But that was then and now is different. “The economy is in a bad spot,” said Brittani Robbins, chamber executive director. The problems on her list are not new to anyone running a business or managing a household in town: Insufficient access to child care, lack of housing for workers and seasonal economic stagnation all contribute to the downturn.

All are real problems and are not unique to Wrangell. But ignoring the pain, taking two aspirin and figuring the headache will be gone by morning is not a plan.

Statewide over the past decade 53,000 more people left Alaska than arrived. That loss of new workers, new families, new adventurers has been a real hit for communities looking to grow or even hold steady.

The U.S. Census Bureau and Alaska Department of Labor both say Wrangell lost population over the past decade. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in years, but much of the town’s problem is a shortage of workers for the jobs that exist.

As reported this summer by the Alaska Department of Labor, Wrangell’s available workforce in May was down by about 80 to 90 people from the past decade.

Part of the reason is that Wrangell is aging. The median age of residents is 11 years older than the statewide average, and 25% of residential property value in town is off the tax rolls under a state-mandated benefit for senior citizens. An aging community means fewer people in the workforce and fewer students in school.

The economic forum is an opportunity to bring business owners, borough officials, school and community leaders together to talk about the problems.

It’s not useful to blame the federal or state government, or to grasp at unrealistic, unaffordable ideas. Alaska has spent far too much time and money dreaming about mega-projects. Wrangell needs to focus on what’s needed and what’s possible.

 

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