Borough officials concerned about ongoing population decline

Borough officials are concerned that Wrangell continues to lose population, while those who stay in town grow older and leave the workforce.

As a whole, the state has lost more residents than it has gained in new arrivals every year since 2013, with only the birth rate keeping Alaska from showing a population decline.

However, unlike the statewide totals, Wrangell recorded more deaths than births between 2017 and 2022, adding to the community’s overall population decline.

The state’s latest estimate for Wrangell’s population, as of last summer, is 2,039 residents. That is down from 2,084 in the state’s summer 2022 estimate; down from the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau number of 2,127; and down from the 2010 census count of 2,369.

“We’ve got to get some residents here,” Mayor Patty Gilbert said in an interview earlier this month.

The loss of working-age residents is a big part of the labor shortage in Alaska, including Wrangell.

Statewide, the labor force peaked in 2013 at 479,000 but by 2022 had declined by almost 26,000, or 5.4%, the sharpest among all states except for West Virginia and Wyoming, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.

Wrangell is among the communities hardest hit by the decline in working-age residents, recording more than a 20% drop in the 18- to 64-year-old workforce between 2013 and 2022, according to the department.

“Outmigration of residents in the state of Alaska is one of our biggest threats,” Kate Thomas, the borough’s economic development director, told the assembly at its Feb. 13 meeting, adding that Wrangell probably has suffered from outmigration longer than the state’s overall numbers.

“It feels a little scary when you start talking about that,” she said.

The community needs “to be thinking seriously” about what it can do to encourage more residents to stay, while attracting new arrivals to move to town, Thomas said.

A lack of housing is a constant issue, she acknowledged. The borough later this year will sell 20 residential lots at the new Alder Top Village (Keishangita.’aan) subdivision near Shoemaker Harbor, with an additional 20 lots possible in a second phase if there is sufficient demand.

The borough will have spent about $2.4 million to clear and survey the land and put in streets and utilities for the first 20 residential lots. It could recover about half that from the land sale.

Gilbert is confident the money is a good investment. “Eventually, we will get our money back,” she said of property tax revenues when the lots transfer into private ownership and from sales taxes paid by homeowners as they fill up their houses.

“It doesn’t pencil out yet, but in years it will,” the mayor said.

“If the (first 20) lots sell as fast as we think they will,” Gilbert wants to proceed with the second round of an additional 20 lots at the subdivision, thinking maybe a private developer would take over the second phase and cover the street and utility costs rather than the borough fronting the money.

In addition to making more housing available, the mayor said the community needs child care services. There is no state-licensed child care center in Wrangell, with parents relying on friends, families and individuals to help.

With fewer births and not enough families moving to town, Wrangell has seen a decline in school enrollment, cutting into its funding from the state, which covers about 60% of the school district operating budget.

The community’s average age, as of state estimates for 2023, was 48.4 years old — one of the highest in Alaska. The statewide average was 36.5 years old.

If the trends continue, Wrangell’s population could fall to 1,724 by 2050, according to Alaska Department of Labor estimates.

“I’m really afraid for our community,” Interim Borough Manager Mason Villarma told the assembly earlier this month.

He said the community needs to take “bold moves” in the next five years to stop and, hopefully, reverse the population decline.

“There’ve got to be little maneuvers we can make to start the ball rolling,” the mayor said. “I don’t want to be so timid not to try something.”

That could include marketing the town for “summer birds,” a seasonal opposite of snowbirds, she said of attracting retirees with disposal income to spend their summers in Wrangell to avoid the heat of their hometowns in the Lower 48.

The mayor is open to most any ideas. “I’m always intrigued by what people see in Wrangell that I may be missing,” Gilbert said, pointing out that the town needs to come up with its own ideas. “Nobody is knocking on our door.”

 

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