The Sitka Assembly postponed action Tuesday on a plan to spend $72,000 on a geotechnical survey along Green Lake Road.
The request to hold off on a decision came from the organization that asked for the item to appear on the Assembly’s agenda: the Sitka Economic Development Association.
“We’d really like to have a full Assembly to be able to fully hear this and vet this process through, because it’s going to be controversial, and we understand that,” said Garry White, SEDA’s executive director.
White was addressing five of the seven Assembly members. Two were absent on Tuesday. That’s not terribly unusual in the summertime, but it is enough to mess with the margin of error. Passage at the Assembly requires at least four votes.
White’s organization proposed hiring Avalon Development of Fairbanks to study an area along Green Lake Road for minerals. Doing so could tell local officials whether Sitka is literally a gold mine.
But the possibility of the mine resulted in some public concern, and even with White’s suggestion that the item be postponed, Mayor Mim McConnell allowed members of the public to continue testifying for or against the study.
Larry Edwards was one of five people to speak against spending money on the study. He told the Assembly it amounted to “gambling with public funds.”
“Even if we were to win, so to speak, and if an exploitable deposit were found, I think we’re better off to leave well-enough alone and not do it,” he said.
Resident Paul Norwood said the mining industry can pay its own way.
“They don’t need my tax money to go out and find gold in Silver Bay,” he said. “They already have money. If there’s real interest there, they can go out and find it.”
The Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, came to the meeting with a resolution in support of the project. Chamber President Ptarmica McConnell said her organization believes the project could eventually mean high-paying jobs for Sitka.
“We have to remember there are a lot of struggling families in Sitka, even if they’re one- or two-income families trying to make ends meet,” she said. “A potential economic driver, like mining, could help that.”
Ptarmica McConnell was one of three people to voice support for the project, the others being White, with SEDA, and Kenneth Cameron. He is president, CEO and chairman of the board for Shee Atika, Inc., the local Native corporation in Sitka. His company funded earlier studies by Avalon — both a public report prepared for SEDA and an unrelated private report prepared for Shee Atika.
He says he understands concerns about mining, including environmental ones.
“These things can be done right, they should be done right,” Cameron said. “The questions that I have are: Where are you going to find, in this community, jobs that pay $100,000 a year? What’s the average salary in this community? It’s less than $50,000 a year.”
Cameron said the impact of mining employment could bring big benefits to Sitka, but agreed with White’s request to postpone the issue. It will next appear before the Assembly when all members can be present, either in person or by phone.