The Sitka Economic Forum was the second in a two-part series of community discussions sponsored by the Sitka Chamber of Commerce and the Sitka Economic Development Association.
Garry White is SEDA’s director. He was happy with the large turnout at Harrigan Centennial Hall, and seemed excited by the energy of the group — even if things didn’t unfold quite as he had planned.
“I got a lot of vision. I wanted specific achievable, but I think that’s going to come out of these discussions, these little cluster groups that are working on these individual ideas. I like that a lot of people really put thought into it, and are really concerned about how we move forward as a community.”
White was looking for ways to pull new money into Sitka’s primary economy — the goods and services that bring outside money into town, whether through selling some product like seafood, or through expanded government or non-profit funding.
Instead, participants voted to pursue affordable housing strategies on the benchlands, to develop a deepwater cruise dock downtown, and to develop a comprehensive marketing plan for independent tourism. Both affordable housing and a dock have been tried before, and have stalled
There was no shortage of ideas among the 65 attendees: The white board had long lists of possibilities ranging from commercial composting and fish-waste re-processing to outdoor recreation, single-semester courses for outside universities, and increased broadband.
White says he’ll publish a report on the forum, in the event anyone wants to try a different direction.
“These ideas are out there, and if folks in the community want to embrace one of these ideas, there will be champions of these ideas out there — folks who stood up and said, I want to move this forward. Not necessarily this entire group got behind them, but those ideas will be there for other folks to jump on.”
The three preferred ideas also will be advanced by “champions,” and on a rigorous timeline. Karen Martinsen, speaking on behalf of the affordable housing group, listed a number of goals to accomplish in just the next two weeks. Her group wanted to investigate cottage-homes on the benchlands, to revisit an affordable housing development on the old city shops land, and to involve community land trusts in holding down the cost of property.
Martinsen said the issue was about more than getting people into starter homes.
“We also agreed that there’s a need for all categories of houses, because once a person moves from a starter home, they want a bigger home, and then another home, and a nicer home. So there’s need for all levels and costs of homes.”
Bob Medinger spoke for the independent tourism group, which is interested in pulling agency stakeholders together to hire a marketing consultant. Medinger said cruise ship travelers ought to book trips based on whether or not Sitka was on the itinerary. His group also wanted to build on Sitka’s reputation as a conference destination.
Dan Jones and Tam Fondell represented the deepwater dock idea. Their group thought that combining a dock with expanded harbor facilities for the fishing fleet might help move both along.
“Take the existing breakwater at Crescent Harbor and step it out far enough that you’ll add to the harbor’s size and get more fishermen’s floats. And then open it on the far end so that you get rock out on this spit, and what you end up with is a spit that goes out onto breakwater that has a cantilever dock on it. So you have a deepwater dock and a larger Crescent Harbor for fishermen’s slips.
In the past twenty years, two previous deepwater dock proposals for downtown Sitka have been sent to the electorate: one near O’Connell Bridge, and one adjacent to the former Sheldon Jackson College. Both failed.
Jones said an interim action item for the group would be to approach the cruise lines and ask them to anchor as close as possible to town when visiting Sitka and, if they choose not to cooperate, seek an assembly resolution making it compulsory.