(Credit: Margaret Friedenauer)

Haines’ Fort Seward on a winter day. (Credit: Margaret Friedenauer)

An effort to create a college or similar higher education program in Haines is just starting to get off the ground and gather interest. About a dozen residents met at the library Tuesday evening to start the discussion. The fledgling group will need to narrow down many divergent ideas and goals to find a clear path forward.

Greg Podsiki says his interest in bringing higher education to Haines was sparked by a recent conversation with newspaper publisher Tom Morphet.

“Tom Morphet stopped me on the street and said, ‘we need to do something for winter economy in Haines. What could we do?’ So the next morning I woke up and I thought ‘a college is perfect,'” Podsiki said. “And it is perfect, I think.”

But finding that perfect higher education model for Haines is going to take some work. At Tuesday’s meeting, there were as many ideas as there were people in the room.

Tonya Clark suggested a program where local students and seasonal workers can find success.

“I mean I was looking at it from the needs of Haines perspective,” Clark said. “So many kids after high school and even in high school have no clue – I mean we have lots of different need in Haines educationally right now, even with our small population.”

But Podsiki said, that’s not his vision. He wants a program that will bring outside dollars to Haines.

“To me, that was the whole point is bringing people to town,” Podsiki said. “I want to help save the town to make it economically stay a town.”

One thing that everyone seemed to agree on is that a Haines college program should focus on local strengths: arts, outdoor leadership, Native culture, fisheries, and ornithology were some suggestions.

“It can work, but it needs to be driven at the right things,” said Alaska Mountain Guides owner Sean Gaffney. “And things like where there’s a natural strength, something that other places don’t have, that’s marketable in a legitimate way.”

Gaffney has experience in this kind of endeavor. He founded the International Wilderness Leadership School, which is based in Haines but runs courses around the world. Gaffney said about 700 people a year take classes like mountaineering and sea kayaking with the school.

Dave Olerud from the American Bald Eagle Foundation said the organization has talked about starting an ornithology school.

“What geographic area has the greatest number of bald eagles in North America?” Olerud asked. “Alaska.”

Olerud said people should be coming to Alaska to study eagles, but there just isn’t that type of program here, yet.

Schoolteacher Patty Brown agreed that whatever model the group pursues, it should involve hands-on learning.

“We wanted kids to be able to learn something real, something that their passion drives them and something that they can get their hands on to,” Brown said.

It’s up in the air whether partnering with the University of Alaska or another school would be the best course. UA has satellite campuses, but with state budget cuts, asking the university to expand to Haines might be a long-shot.

The group ended the meeting with a few goals in mind. One is to identify if there are any gaps in UA’s offerings that Haines might be suited to fill.

The idea is in its infancy, but enough interest and research may determine whether it comes to fruition.