By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News
About 18 members of the Seward business community, and others representing city government, attended a second economic planning workshop at the Legends Tuesday, September 19th. The previous month some 40 people had attended a similar day-long gathering, according to Seward Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cindy Clock.
The workshops, and subsequent smaller, target-group meetings, are a new, but somewhat different extension of an effort a couple of years ago to bring community, private sector and business leaders together to discuss Seward’s economic direction, and what could be done to improve it.
That effort resulted in an independent survey report of what types of services we needed in Seward, and how the business community felt about the impediments to their business, such as an inconsistent, difficult city permitting system. It also resulted in the Seward Merchants Association trying to garner more winter business, and to provide better advertising in tourist markets. The city has begun to try streamlining the permitting process on a single website, and city officials made an effort to improve customer service, by requiring training of all city staff in that area.
Fast forward to today, and the idea has been revived, only this time with workshops funded by the Seward Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. Aiding the effort again is Christi Bell, of University of Alaska Center for Economic Development and Laszlo Kozmon of Strategy-Nets, an independent planner and facilitator from an organization that believes that ttransforming a regional economy requires strategic collaborations between public and private enterprise, and co-investment in four areas: Building brainpower with 21st century skills; Strengthening networks to support entrepreneurs and innovative firms; Developing quality, connected places for both people and businesses; and Creating new narratives to guide people in the transformation taking place.
The idea is to bring leaders from all areas in the community together on a regular basis to strategize a joint future for their community, and to figure out how to accomplish various small and large goals that can be done within the next 90 days, a year, and over the next 10 years.
“The whole first six months is about learning to do this, learning to get on the same page together,” expained Kozmon. “It’s hard,” he added. “Expect a lot of fits and starts.”
Kozmon talked about the flow of “good money” or money that grows an economy, “bad money,” or cash that flows out of an economy and “neutral money” that circulates through an economy as fast as it can, and helps keep the economy going. “It’s all about attracting the right set of assets to the community,” he said. Good money might be local year-round businesses that serve the community. Bad might be businesses that local folks use outside of the community, because it doesn’t exist here, while neutral money might be those tourist-related businesses that create seasonal jobs, using workers from Outside.
The chamber board of directors, and other invited members of the community formed smaller groups to think about these things. They dubbed themselves the Brainpower group, the Innovation and Business group, the Quality and Connected Places group, New Narratives group, and Regional Partnerships group.
Their members sat down for a series of timed written brainstorming exercises envisioning Seward’s current situation and future, and predicting impediments to success, and how to measure that success. The brainpower group held rather freewheeling discussions about things like how our talented young people have to leave Seward to attend community college or university; about how many young professionals think of Seward as a stepping-stone to careers elsewhere, and leave; about how difficult for some in private enterprise to find local apprentices, and how we wished that AVTEC, UAF, and other centers of higher learning could partner together to achieve common goals.
In the large group-discussions Kozmon helped brainstorm some ideas that the groups might consider working on: Seward’s marine and tourism assets both could be strengthened, he said. The first includes the development and expansion of Seward Marine Industrial Center; plus encouraging marine-related businesses get established at SMIC uplands and along Port Avenue. But Seward also needs to expand into “adjacent spaces,” such as fisheries, and more commercial/industrial activities, he said. Doing so would smooth out Seward’s cyclical economy and reduce the risks of expanding tourism beyond its normal, 120 day cycle, he said. Kozmon also could foresee new opportunities created with an Alaska Railroad extension and with the fact that four major high- cable companies are planning to bring in fiberoptic cable, which would enable an increase in data-related business productivity.
On the city side, the local permit processes and zoning processes are broken, and have to be streamlined for easy use by businesses, he said. There are also plenty of city assets, such as city land and buildings not being used. We should consider what kind of productivity we’re getting out of that land, he said. Private companies also have hidden assets that they don’t monetize, he said. Partnership opportunities could significantly boost our economic growth and bring good money in.
“”Are we going to let everybody come in here and poach or assets, or do something about it?” he asked.
But the area’s leaders need to “align” themselves first in order to achieve common goals..
“You want to get down to who will do what, when—not just create a report that will sit on a shelf,” Lazslo said a couple of times.
Those attending took Seward Marine Industrial Center development, and home-porting Coastal Villages here as an example of a common goal that all could agree would be good for Seward. But the discussion made clear that they still have a variety of differing perspectives to iron out before getting all parties to work together.
Major Marine and Hertz Rental owner Tom Tougas said it was too bad that he has to send his cruise ships to Homer for needed maintenance, as he couldn’t find what he needed here in Seward. Homer has some 150 marine-support businesses, he said. He, along with Chinook’s owner Dan Butts proposed a meeting with Seward City officials to share their knowledge with a group of local “young entrepreneurs” about the kinds of needs that the new ships planned for SMIC might have, and how they can get a piece of that pie. The meeting is planned for tonight (October 18) at Chinooks Restaurant.
Assistant City Manager Ron Long, a marine surveyor, agreed it was a pity that most of the businesses offering their services to the effort to date are from Seattle, where the lucrative fishing fleet has been home-ported, and encouraged those in the local business community to get more involved by contacting Coastal Villages directly. Christy Terry voiced concern that city officials had not yet shared the details of their plans for SMIC development.
A short-term example of action taken to date as a result of the planning meetings was a late summer tour by local business people of the Summit Lake Lodge, which has converted to lake-heated water pumps as a renewable source of heat. The man who installed those pumps also held a public meeting to discuss their potential uses around Seward.