GROW Ketchikan, a nonprofit organization working with the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, held a virtual event on May 20 titled, “Prosperity Ketchikan,” featuring guest speaker Robert Venables, who is the executive director of Southeast Conference. The conference is a regional economic advocacy organization.
GROW Ketchikan Executive Director Deborah Hayden started the meeting by sharing her hope that the event would be a place to gather community input to help create action steps that will support fresh economic growth in Ketchikan.
“We have a long way to go in order to secure ourselves from future disasters,” Hayden said. “So that’s what this is all about.”
She said that she has been interviewing business leaders and community members during the past year, about what they see as opportunities for Ketchikan. She added that the information gleaned from those discussions as well as from the May 20 event is to be compiled into a report that “will look at what is feasible for Ketchikan, what we can do, what is the greatest opportunity, and we will come up with action steps … to bring these things into reality.”
Hayden then introduced Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle O’Brien, who told attendees that she was “thrilled” that GROW Ketchikan now is housed in the Chamber offices at The Plaza mall, as it establishes an important link for economic development resources.
Hayden also noted that under O’Brien’s leadership, the Chamber in 2021 was honored as “State Local Chamber of the Year” for Alaska.
O’Brien shared a positive view of the picture of how businesses have fared in the past couple of years since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
As expected, some businesses ended up closing during that time, O’Brien said, but at the same time, others seemed to open.
The “amount of ideas coming out of Ketchikan” is impressive, she said.
Looking forward to the future, O’Brien said it’s expected that tourism will continue to be Ketchikan’s main economic driver, and emphasized that it’s important that work is done to diversify the economy.
She mentioned that some larger industries grow and mature more slowly, like mariculture, so it’s important to sustain support for them.
Venables shared a slide show that outlined the prospects for Ketchikan and the Southeast 2025 Economic Plan, which he said was the recipient of the 2021 National Association of Development Organizations Impact Award — the second time Southeast Conference has won that award. He said that a plan is created every five years, starting with gathering input from thousands of the region’s community members.
Venables said that in putting together the plan, “we build the umbrella so that almost every imaginable type of project could qualify” for funding, he said. “As communities and tribes and other entities go after federal funding, one of the first things the (U.S. Economic Development Administration) does is take a look to see if the project is part of a regional strategy.”
His first slide, titled “Southeast Alaska’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” listed factors under those headings for Southeast’s seven regional industries.
The industries listed were: seafood, health care, visitor industry, mining, timber, transportation, and energy.
In another slide he displayed, “Southeast 2025 top 50 Economic Initiatives,” the initiatives were organized under the headings of the seven industries. For instance, under “transportation,” the top priority listed was to sustain and support the Alaska Marine Highway System. Under “Seafood and Maritime,” the top priority was mariculture development.
Another goal Venables said that Southeast Conference is working on is “to try to restore what was a reduction in matching funds requirement” through the EDA for the projects listed in the initiatives.
Right now, required matches range from 20% to 50%, he said.
Southeast Conference also has an active business climate survey open, and he urged business community members to participate. The survey is available online at www.seconference.org.
If Ketchikan residents input enough data, Venables said, Southeast Conference will break out statistics for the community separately, to use “as a tool as you move forward.”
Southeast Conference currently is working to support mariculture, Venables said, as “this is probably one of the number-one, new wealth-creating opportunities for the state of Alaska, and certainly for our region, with all the coastline we have, and there’s a lot of progress that has been made over the last six years.”
He mentioned that the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, which now is known as the Alaska Mariculture Alliance and functions as the industry’s trade group.
Every year, he said, more permits are being approved, and the products are being moved to an increasing number of locations. Shellfish is the main driver, he said, but kelp and other sea vegetables is an expanding industry, as well.
He mentioned the market for seaweeds as very broad and unique, ranging from feed stock for animals to pharmaceuticals and biofuels.
State funding for mariculture also has been broadening, Venables said.
He also mentioned the project Southeast Conference has been working on with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a mariculture processing facility on Prince of Wales Island.
The project aims to create a model for how to partner with existing seafood processors to grow opportunities for the mariculture sector in a nonprofit model, Venables said.
Southeast Conference also is working to support the Alaska state ferry system and to promote “beneficial electrification,” through supporting increased heat pump and electric motor vehicle use.
A project that Southeast Conference is especially excited about, Venables said, is a demonstration for processing various feedstocks for pellet mills.
“Ketchikan is just uniquely situated to be that location,” he said.
Venables added that he often will tell people that “Ketchikan’s kind of the Pittsburgh of Southeast Alaska” with its “innovation and willingness to dive in and create solution sets.”
Hayden then cited statistics from the top revenue-generating industries in Ketchikan, with tourism bringing in $191 million in 2019. In 2018, she said, commercial fishing was the next highest, garnering $105 million.
Hayden emphasized that the industries that support the most growth for the community are those that bring in money from Outside. The healthcare industry locally is large, she said, using it as an example, but it does not bring in Outside revenue.
“It’s only circulating money in our local economy,” she said. “It’s not creating new economic growth, and that’s what we want to focus on, is those industries that bring money from outside the region.”
Hayden then introduced Ketchikan entrepreneur Coatlicue Toledo, who shared information about her business “Glow Spa.”
< div class="subscriber-only">
Toledo said that she started her business in 2021. She manufactures all-natural, plant-based beauty products herself and exports 44% of her products outside the state. Her best-selling product, a hair growth oil, also is sold at many local businesses, she said.
Hayden told listeners that Toledo’s business is “an example of what we need to do for a vibrant, healthy economy.”
Hayden then described recent focus areas of GROW Ketchikan.
The organization has been a strong promoter of the mariculture industry, she said, especially oyster farming and supporting the creation of a hatchery for geoducks.
GROW Ketchikan also is seeking out opportunities in videography and graphic and web design.
The main constraints for economic growth in Ketchikan remain the isolated location Hayden said, but she emphasized that the new Ketchikan Public Utilities fiber optic cable is a powerful resource.
“So, we are blessed with that, so we can really take advantage of Internet-based activities,” Hayden said.
GROW Ketchikan also is a big supporter of the arts, Hayden added.
“Ketchikan is a major arts town, we really can ramp that up,” she said.
Dee Wright, the owner/operator of The Manor, a local assisted living home, spoke about her business.
“Southeast Alaska and Ketchikan, Alaska itself is one of the fastest-growing elderly populations in the United States,” she said.
Wright added, “assisted living is an industry that has been growing for the last 10 years in the United States.”
She also pointed out that “this industry would help with a lot of the other issues that we’re having in Ketchikan as far as homeless(ness.)”
The elderly industry could bring money into the community, through healthcare and federal and state funding, she said.
“Ketchikan is one of the only places in Southeast right now that is not really moving forward on elder housing,” Wright said.
She said that she started her business with a two-bedroom unit on Park Avenue and she grew it to the 12-bedroom unit she runs now on Heckman Street. She also has been developing an expansion during the past seven years.
Construction funding is a major barrier, however, she explained. As a for-profit business, grants are scarce.
She said that she knows of people living outside of Alaska who would move here if they could find appropriate elder housing.
Hayden told Wright that the GROW Ketchikan housing group “At Home Ketchikan” would be a useful resource for her.
“I have lined up funding sources,” Hayden said. “Grow Ketchikan is a nonprofit, and we have also lined up developers who are qualified to do low-income housing tax credits and with the Alaska Housing Finance.”
Ketchikan business owner Bill Rotecki spoke next about the new local businesses that grow and sell greens.
“They’re replacing things that we would have to normally import, and providing them locally” he said, adding, “which means we’re sending less out of the town, which you’d say is equivalent to bringing money into the town.”
The companies also can expand to sell the greens out of town, Rotecki said, referring to Hayden’s comment that the most desirable industries bring Outside money into the community.
Local hospitality business owner Terry Wanzer spoke of ways that the hospitality industry could expand the local economy.
The hospitality industry produces a large amount of waste, he said, stating that his own business pays $50,000 annually just for landfill use charges.
“Most of that is food waste,” Wanzer said. “We have millions of acres here. There could be a business where you could use that particular product. If you put it in a landfill it creates a gas called methane that happens naturally — it could be used for heating — all you have to do is put a pipe in the ground.”
He mentioned that fish byproducts also can be used to create fertilizer.
Another waste product from his hotel is little plastic bottles for shampoo and soap, which he said also could be recycled into useful products.
Wanzer also agreed that housing for the elderly needs to be increased in Ketchikan.
“You’ve got to create incentives for the elderly to stay here,” he said.
Some already are in place, he noted, such as permanent fishing licenses and tax breaks for seniors as well as other positives to living in Ketchikan, such as short commutes that save on gas.
“We need to capitalize, in my opinion, on why you should live in Ketchikan,” Wanzer said.
Wanzer spoke of the difficulties his business, as well as many others, has been having in finding employees. He spoke of encouraging immigrants to settle in Ketchikan to bolster businesses by offering a vital workforce.
Julie Lekwauwa, owner of Julie’s Jams and Jellies, also spoke during the meeting.
Lekwauwa echoed Wanzer’s thoughts on the importance of supporting people who want to immigrate to the United States to work and live. Her own husband immigrated from Nigeria to settle in Ketchikan, and she described him as a productive man who has been working five jobs simultaneously.
“It took me six years and $60,000 to get him legally to the United States and to the point of being a citizen,” she said.
Additionally, they now face tens of thousands more dollars in expenses and many years of waiting to bring her husband’s family members to Ketchikan.
Lekwauwa then spoke of her business, which she said is a cottage industry entity.
A huge need for the many cottage industry business owners in Ketchikan is a large, affordable, indoor venue from which owners could sell their wares to locals and tourists.
Hayden said that at one point there was a plan drawn up to include a pavilion on the downtown promenade that would serve that purpose, but funds have prevented that project from moving forward.
Ketchikan City Council Member Lallette Kistler mentioned that in recent talks with representatives from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, they had specifically stated a wish for venues such as a space downtown in which locals could offer handmade products for sale to their customers.
“I think Julie and her jams, and artists drawing, painting right there, I think would be a great thing for Ketchikan,” Kistler said.