Five people are running for the Sitka Assembly on Oct. 2. Voters will elect three of them, for two three-year terms, and one one-year term. This week, KCAW is profiling the Assembly candidates, beginning with Matt Hunter.
Matt Hunter might be new on the political scene in Sitka, but he’s no stranger to government service. The lifelong resident volunteers for both the fire department and Sitka Mountain Rescue. As for why he’s running for office?
“Well I’m not doing it because it’s going to be easy, I can tell you that,” he said.
He says his interest in being on the Assembly has to do with his desire to live in Sitka for the rest of his life.
“I guess I’m really fascinated by how this town works, and that’s because I love living here,” Hunter said. “I think I can do a good job of weighing the possible solutions to the challenges that face us, and picking the one that’s the best for the long-term good of Sitka.”
Hunter is 30 and a math and physics teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. He says one of the Sitka’s biggest long-term challenges is retaining younger residents.
“I’ve seen a lot of talented friends leave town,” he said. “They get their master’s degree at UAS and there’s no job in town that gives them benefits. They’re willing to work a job that’s not even in their field as long as they can get benefits and make a wage that they can afford to save some money to buy a house.”
Hunter describes a community where the price of a home, or even the price of monthly rent, is well above average.
“I know they’re not New York City (prices), but we’re talking $1,000 a month for a decent apartment in this town. It’s nearly impossible for people to ever have hope of buying a home,” Hunter said. “So affordable housing would have to be the number one challenge facing our town.”
He says the community needs more small lots on the market, and therefore more small homes that people have a chance to afford.
His other priorities include completing the Blue Lake hydro expansion.
“We have to have that affordable power, because that’s what allows our seafood producers to be in town and it’s what makes it possible for a lot of businesses and residents to live here,” he said.
Recent bids for raising the dam were nearly double engineers’ estimates. Hunter says he’s hopeful the state will help out, and that he knows it’s expensive, but that walking away from the project is out of the question.
“It’s not an option for our town,” he said. “Whether we spend $100 million building that dam, or $100 million in diesel fuel over the next decade, we’re going to be spending money.”
Cheap electricity is crucial to local industry, he says. That includes the fishing industry. Hunter says the fleet needs more resources, including sufficient haul-out facilities. Right now, Sitka has one haul-out. Hunter says the city probably can’t afford to operate its own, or even to incentivize a private haul-out, but it should take an active role in encouraging some more marine services development.
“If there’s a way to do it without cutting the legs out from under existing businesses, we need to support that, because that’s what our fishing fleet needs to stay here,” Hunter said. “Perhaps we can employ locals with decent jobs and keep our fishing fleet here. Both of which are very important things.”
Hunter has a whole list of ideas he prepared for this campaign. They include allowing residents to harvest timber from the soon-to-be-flooded Blue Lake valley, continue city contributions to nonprofit organizations, incentivize city hall employees to find efficiencies and cost-saving measures, and develop a master plan for the roads, determining which low-use streets could possibly revert to gravel. That could save the city millions, he says, rather than upping vehicle registration fees on residents.
And he says whether any of those come to fruition should be based on input not just from the Assembly, but from the community at large.
“I like to think of myself as somewhat humble, in that I recognize that when I talk, I’m not learning anything,” he said. “I’m not really listening to other people. The more minds you can involve in solving a problem, the smarter you’re going to be.”
And although Sitka has its problems, Hunter says it also has a history of adapting.
“The mill closed, the town has moved on,” he said. “We’ve got tourism in a bit of a decline. The town is going to move on, and we’re going to succeed.”
Hunter says he wants to add optimism to an Assembly discussion that often borders on the pessimistic.
“People talk about how hard it is and how hard it’s going to get,” he said. “I agree, it’s harder now than it was a few years ago for local businesses and for people to afford to live here. However, I have hope for the future. I know our town is going to adapt and grow.”
Hunter says he wants to be the one helping make decisions now that he’ll be able to appreciate decades into the future.