Self-employment report highlights Wrangell's do-it-yourself spirit

"Alaskans are such go-getters. If we don't have access to a service here, we either live without it, or make it happen," said Shawna Buness, co-owner of Sweet Tides Bakery.

Buness and her partner Devyn Johnson are among the self-employed people who comprise about 9% of Alaska's workforce. The percentage is higher in Wrangell, where one in eight workers is his or her own boss, according to a report in Trends, a monthly magazine of the Alaska Department of Labor.

Wrangell was in the top third of communities around the state with the highest number of self-employed workers. Top occupations among the self-employed in the state are fishing, construction, food service, artists and hairdressers among others.

The top occupations in Southeast look a little different than the rest of the state.

"Many of the areas with high self-employment are in Southeast. Southeast is older than the rest of the state, and fishing and tourism-centered businesses are prevalent in many communities," stated the report written by economist Neal Fried and research analyst Liz Brooks.

Another report issued by Rain Coast Data looking at Southeast's economy for 2021 confirmed that commercial fishing is the largest industry of self-employed workers in the region with an estimated 2,240 people.

The Trends report noted it's difficult to get an accurate figure on the number of self-employed workers as "data on the self-employed in Alaska are scarce. The best information comes from just two datasets from the U.S. Census Bureau, both of which are limited."

Wrangell's Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore echoed that finding.

"There are tons of self-employed businesses, but they are hard to track," she said. "I don't have a number, but I would say that the self-employed are a strong backbone of Wrangell's economy. Some people may have two jobs, one of them being a self-employed business."

One such example is Deanna Reeves, who owns Reeves Guest House at 3.75 Mile Zimovia Highway. Reeves runs the short-term-stay lodging, but she also takes care of the bookkeeping for her husband's commercial fishing business.

The Reeves built the two-bedroom, 1½-bath property in 2015 as a long-term rental but converted it to short-term in 2020.

"(My husband Alan) wanted to put a shop here," Reeves said. "I thought putting a shop here would be a waste of a view. I wanted to capitalize on the view." Last summer the property, which is marketed to tourists, wedding parties and visiting family members, was booked solid throughout the season, she said.

According to the report, commercial fishing is the No. 1 self-employment category in Alaska. The only other state where fishing even appears in the top 10 is Maine.

Tourism has always been a large factor in self-employment in Southeast, such as jet boat and other tour operators. The Trends report stated that travel agencies - a one-time booming industry in the state - had dwindled to nearly none. However, that isn't the case in Wrangell, where Tyee Travel still operates, solely run by Marjy Wood.

"It's pretty unusual for a small agency to still be in business after all the changes in the industry," Wood said via a phone interview from her winter place overlooking the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

When she began with Tyee Travel in 1988, Wood typically helped Wrangell residents book travel for medical appointments and family vacations. As airlines lowered, then capped, then discontinued their commissions to travel agencies, she had to pivot her operation to stay afloat.

"We started to get calls from people from out of state that didn't want cookie-cutter Alaska travel," she said. Wood has taken the small cruises that stop in Wrangell through May to September. She's gone on the tours and experienced the things Alaska has to offer, helping her sell the travel to out-of-staters. "My niche is pretty much I've done everything I sell."

Out of the 125 members of the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce, 25 are self-employed, said Brittani Robbins, executive director.

"I think it's the small-town necessity," Robbins said. "In order to have businesses here, you need to have entrepreneurism. I think it's a little bit of (the do-it-yourself mentality)."

Part of that necessity, she said, is not being attached to a mainland road system.

Buness and Johnson had that necessity in mind when they opened Sweet Tides Bakery almost one year ago. In that time, they have gone from being self-employed with no staff to expanding their business with a café addition (to open in April) and hiring employees. They saw a need and filled it.

"Wrangell didn't have a bakery, so we opened one," Buness said.

 

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