By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Guests generally don’t appear before the Seward City Council with passionate advice on how to conduct their business. Not when it requires a total change in their normal thinking process. But Laszlo Kozmon of Strategy-Nets LLC, of Cleveland Ohio, and Christi Bell of the University of the Alaska Center for Economic Development, did so Monday, Feb. 25 at a council work session, and also at the regular meeting when they presented the Seward Economic Development Plan on behalf of the Seward Chamber of Commerce. (File photo by HZ taken during October 18 meeting at The Legends.)
The plan contains many broad ideas gathered during two well attended, day-long public gatherings that the Chamber hosted, facilitated by Kozmon and Bell.
Kozmon told the council that Seward has several challenges including an under-use of potentially valuable assets; a highly concentrated tax base that needs diversification; a lack of pro-growth city policies; inexperience in different organizations working together for a common goal; and the business community, residents and city often at odds over what to do.
The plan the local folks came up with suggests seven economic growth initiatives to increase revenues by bringing businesses and jobs into Seward. They include the SMIC harbor development project, a railroad dock extension, creating an industrial area off Port Avenue and below the railway tracks. Other ideas include having Seward play a greater role in Alaska marine disaster or oil spill response and recovery, and encouraging broadband to expand and flourish here. There’s a major superhighway cable that runs through Seward, and straight out under Resurrection Bay, but there’s no off-ramp to the community of Seward, Kozmon noted.
To reduce costs for businesses, and keep them in Seward, the plan proposes alternative energy and energy efficiency, streamlining the city permit process, and again-broadband.
Seward would get its “biggest bang for the buck” or healthier economy by focusing on two of the five basic strategies to grow a regional economy, he said. Top among those strategies are retaining businesses, and building and attracting more of the same kinds of businesses. Kozmon also talked about bringing in “good money,” or supporting industry that will circulate several times around the community, while decreasing or discouraging “bad money,” or businesses that are here, but take the money Outside.
Kozmon also talked about fostering a quality, connected place that would attract people and businesses. The best people look for better-than-average places to live, he said. An example would be a place with good schools, affordable, available housing, recreation opportunities, quality medical care, and a good story to tell which would make Seward seem unique and attractive.
The plan proposes that the Chamber of Commerce play a central role in anchoring the core group that will oversee the plan and its implementation. The chamber would do more to foster business growth—not just organize events, as it does now. Its new role should be to assist growth by researching and uncovering new opportunities, providing education and training as needed, provide a contact network for businesses.
Kozmon asked the City Council to pass a resolution adopting the plan in concept, and pledging to do what it can to move the process forward. It should then start to work streamlining and combining all permitting, zoning, and licensing-related processes into one simpler process, preferably with Internet capability for self-service. Business owners have complained about the daunting multi-stepped process they have to go through to open or improve a store or restaurant, where permits are required every step of the way. They feel that hinders, rather than encourages their efforts.
The next step for the city would be to “repurpose” or sell city assets—primarily land it isn’t using, for example opening land at SMIC and selling it to marine-support businesses. To date, most of that land is tied up in city hands, and people don’t want to build on land they don’t own.
Kozmon said groups of interested people should get together and figure out some practical changes that they could accomplish in successive six month time periods. They would start with the first, then learn from their mistakes and accomplishments, alter their goals if necessesary, and move on to the next six-month period.
The council’s response appeared mixed. On the one hand they seemed to appreciate the Ohio planner’s enthusiasm over Seward’s exciting growth potential. They have already started to consider and implement some ideas in the plan such as SMIC development; putting all permitting agencies in roughly the same physical location in town, and assessing the land and property they could sell. But one could also sense some skepticism about what it would mean to back such a comprehensive plan, and share its direction with other entities. There was cynicism expressed from these long-term city representatives over previous attempts tried and failed.
“Not having a full P and Z board has hurt us. If you really want city-friendly policies this is where we need to start, and that’s holding up everything,” said Vanta Shafer.
“Council’s come and go, but we get new administrations. Sometimes (the direction taken) depends on who is administering those policies,” said Marianna Keil.
“Years ago I tried to start a Port Trade Zone. They about run me out of town!,” said Bob Valdatta
“People always say the city is hard to work with, but then they won’t tell us the brass tacks. I don’t think it’s an imaginary problem, but has it blown up over the years?,” said Shafer.
“Why isn’t anybody talking to Google?,” asked Kozmon, suggesting that call centers or high tech businesses would be a good idea.
“We talked to them but it didn’t go anywhere,” said Christy Terry. She reminded the council what a struggle it was for the city to allow GCI to hang new wire cables on the aging downtown telephone poles.
“You’re talking about daily things,” Kozmon responded. “What you need to be thinking about is a future. Acting on what we find out, and acting on what we hope the future to be.”
Kozmon and Bell watched with interest as an item came up at the council meeting about amending the zoning designation of a small portion of city-owned land (3/4 of an acre) near the waterfront boundary from “harbor commercial” zoning to “park” zoning. The discussion went both ways about keeping that land more park-like, versus allowing it to be developed. In the end council tabled the matter till April 8th.
During citizens comments Kozmon lectured the council on what he had just witnessed. He said there was an opportunity to consider all city land assets as one, and determine how each parcel can support the kind of economic growth decided upon. But instead, he could see that the council was “piece-mealing” these kinds of decisions.
“I can see you go thru lists and lists without making decisions as a cohesive whole. Now you have two plus two plus two is five,” he said.