Local News

Competition targets Southeast entrepreneurs

Haa Aani CEO Russell Dick, left, listens as The Nature Conservancy Southeast Director Norman Cohen talks about the Path to Prosperity competition.

Haa Aani CEO Russell Dick, left, listens as The Nature Conservancy Southeast Director Norman Cohen talks about the Path to Prosperity competition.

A Southeast Alaska Native corporation and a conservation group are combining forces to try to spur sustainable regional development. They’re funding a $500,000 business-plan contest aimed at, but not limited to, the area’s smaller communities.

It’s no secret Southeast Alaska has had its share of economic problems. They’ve hit villages and small cities especially hard.

“Our focus has to be on providing opportunities for families and residents to remain in these rural communities,” said Russell Dick, president and CEO of Haa Aaní, LLC, a subsidiary of the Juneau-based Sealaska regional Native corporation.

Haa Aaní has a nonprofit community development fund. It’s partnering with The Nature Conservancy on a competition, called Path to Prosperity.

“This is really a program about creating entrepreneurship, creating business, creating economic development in a way that utilizes our natural resources within the communities to sustain lifestyles,” Dick said.

A family samples offerings at 2012's OysterFest. The shellfish came from a Haa Aani-supported oyster farm.

A family samples offerings at 2012’s OysterFest. The shellfish came from a Haa Aani-supported oyster farm.

The contest will collect proposals from Southeast residents, businesses and tribal entities.

A dozen finalists will be brought to Juneau for a weekend boot camp to learn about business development and plan-writing.

Norm Cohen is Southeast program director for The Nature Conservancy. The international organization supports environmentally friendly, small-scale development projects.

“Our theory of change is that there are other uses of forest products and activities that can take place in the forest that can be a strong economic opportunity that will last for a long period of time without jeopardizing use for future generations,” Cohen said.

Two contest winners in each of three rounds will receive up to $40,000 in consulting and technical services.

Dick of Haa Aaní said that could include help with trademarks and patents, hiring and financing.

“Hopefully by the end of the second year, after continued development of their business plan, our goal is to put them in contact, or partner them, with organizations that can provide venture capital funding, financing and other types of loans,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy is providing a quarter-million-dollar grant for the competition. Dick said Haa Aaní will match that with staff time and other support.

Sealaska has a lot of critics.

One is Juneau shareholder Brad Fluetsch. He’s a private financial manager and moderator of the 4,400-member Facebook site Sealaska Shareholders.

“It’s a business competition because the management of Haa Aaní is completely devoid of ideas, comprehension or ability to manage a business,” he said.

Fluetsch said he’s proposed village commercial ventures such as harvesting berries, growing peonies for the wedding market, and collecting wild mushrooms.

“There’s 11 varieties of commercial mushrooms that could be easily harvested in Southeast. (I’ve) written up an entire business plan for Sealaska. This is how you make money on our land creating jobs in our communities,” Fluetsch said.

Dick said he’s aware of the proposals, and they could be submitted to the competition or considered separately.

Parent company Sealaska is in the resource-development business and logging has provided a large portion of its revenue.

Dick said Haa Aaní is looking for smaller enterprises. That could include shellfish farms, berry-picking or wood-pellet production.

“Saying we’re going to come in and develop a mine somewhere in one of our communities may create an issue for us,” he said.

Competition organizers will offer an informational webinar Aug. 12th. The deadline for the first round of proposals is Sept. 16th.

Sealaska has about 21,000 shareholders with tribal roots in Southeast. Fewer than half live in the region, with many in Anchorage or the Pacific Northwest.


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