A passenger on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. (Flickr Creative Commons - supafly)

A passenger on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. (Flickr Creative Commons – supafly)

Sustaining and strengthening the Alaska Marine Highway System is the top priority in a recent plan from a Southeast Alaska economic development group. Southeast Conference puts together a plan about every five years that outlines goals for job and business growth in the region. The state budget picture plays a crucial role in this latest proposal.

“It looks at the specific elements that are really Southeast Alaskan,” says Meilani Schijvens of Rain Coast Data in Juneau.

Schijvens put the Southeast Alaska 2020 Economic Plan together for Southeast Conference. More than 400 people from businesses, tribes, Native organizations, municipalities, non-profits and more were involved in developing the plan. Schijvens says it outlines the challenges and opportunities in the region’s economy.

“How does the Southeast Alaska economy tick? What are the opportunities here for us? I mean, we know we have our challenges. There’s more than 1,000 islands in Southeast Alaska, so transportation is obviously an issue. So there are pitfalls, so how can we work around that and work together to grow and plan for a strong economy? I really think that’s what this plan does.”

Transportation is the number one priority in Southeast Conference’s plan. Regional business leaders rated cost of transportation, both for freight and for travel, as one of the top barriers to success.

Southeast Conference Executive Director Shelly Wright says state budget cuts to the marine highway made it an even more crucial area to address.

“Lack of service, lack of dependability, that’s all been happening in the past two to three years,” Wright says. “And we just didn’t see an end in sight to that happening and to have the marine highway go away isn’t an option.”

Southeast Conference made progress towards its goal of creating a more sustainable marine highway recently. The group signed an agreement with Gov. Bill Walker to come up with a new business and management plan for the ferry system.

“And actually design a new governance strategy and develop a strategic plan for 25 years to come,” Wright says.

Southeast Conference is spearheading work on the marine highway initiative. But the group hopes local governments, businesses and non-profits can use the plan and its priorities to support their own goals.

“So this is just an overall guideline for all of the communities to be able to use this as a planning tool and finance tool, trying to get grants and financing for their projects within their communities,” says Wright.

The state budget crisis is bound to have impacts far beyond the marine highway. The economic plan notes that local, state and federal government accounts for a third of all workforce earnings in Southeast. Fourteen percent of direct wages come from state government.

Wright says the state budget woes make development of other economic sectors even more important.

“Grow mariculture, and the seafood industry, and the timber industry, resource development, tourism — small business that isn’t really dependent on the government.”

Those areas are included in the plan’s list of top economic priorities. They include improving energy security, training a maritime industrial workforce, and advocating for the seafood sector.

“If you look at all jobs in Southeast Alaska, you look at all dollars paid in Southeast Alaska, one out of four is paid to somebody who is working directly with or on the ocean,” says Schijvens.

Growing tourism is also a major goal. Schijvens says the visitor industry is the strongest industry overall in Southeast right now.

“We’re going to surpass our million-person cruise ship mark this summer. So how can we attract more visitors to Southeast Alaska and how can we attract more visitors that are going to be spending more money and staying longer?”

Decline in government spending and jobs, the high cost of transportation and living – Southeast faces many economic challenges in the next five years and beyond.

But many of the people surveyed for the plan say quality of life and ‘Southeast Alaskan spirit’ are top benefits to living and working in this part of the world. Southeast Conference hopes that optimism will help motivate economic growth, despite the obstacles.

Read Southeast 2020 Economic Plan here.