Sitka’s Community Health Summit has earned some well-deserved notoriety for bringing achievable health goals to Sitka. But what if you applied the same collaborative process to improving Sitka’s economic health?

The Sitka Economic Development Association is counting on residents to put their heads together to create innovative possibilities for growth in Sitka.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey met with SEDA director Garry White to talk about the upcoming Sitka Economic Forum.

Downloadable audio.

Creative thinking by the inspiration for "The Big Short," Michael Burry, has inspired Garry White and the Sitka Economic Development Association.

Creative thinking by the inspiration for “The Big Short,” Michael Burry, has inspired Garry White and the Sitka Economic Development Association.

The Sitka Economic Forum will convene at 3 PM Tuesday, May 17 in the Sheetka Kwan Naa Kahidi. All our welcome. White asks presenters to keep their ideas between 3 and 5 minutes.

“More jobs are created by doing something that we’re already doing — better. For instance, the way we process fish. I think those guys have already got it figured out, but is there a way that we can innovatively look at our fish waste?”

Garry White is always trying to steer Sitkans toward innovation, but he’s narrowed his focus to innovation that capitalizes on Sitka’s assets.

This will be his third economic forum. He knows there will be no silver bullet.

“Economic development is not an easy thing. It’s a long, drawn-out process. You’re continually trying to push a rock up a hill, just trying to keep moving forward.”

White says he approached the Sitka Health Summit in 2013 for guidance in setting up the first Sitka Economic Forum. The Health Summit has produced projects like the Sitka Farmers’ Market, the Hames Center, and several other successes.

And the Sitka Economic Forum has done pretty well adopting that model: The community’s Sesquicentennial Celebration — that’s the 150th anniversary of the transfer of Alaska to the United States — came out of the forum, along with a push to develop the benchlands and improve transportation connectivity to Sitka.

White doesn’t mind out-of-the box thinking. In fact, he’s a fan. Lately he’s feeling inspired by the movie The Big Short, about the investor who anticipated the 2008 financial crisis — and his real-life story after Hollywood.

White – This guy, his name’s Michael Burry and he’s investing long in water. What he suggests is that it’s not economically viable to move water in big tanker ships. What he’s saying is, What type of vessel can we move water that’s economically viable and politically achievable? And right now he’s looking at moving water in food. Food is the vessel to move water. So what he’s trying to do is buy farmlands that have a guaranteed water source and then raise high-value crops. So we have this guaranteed water source here — plenty of it. What can we do with that water to create jobs locally, looking innovatively at it? We raise trees with water. The trees here are ready to be harvested now. What else can we create? What type of food can we grow that fits within our topography? What kind of industry can we create with our water? What kinds of industries when we look at our other natural resources? That will create jobs and value, and bring quality of life to our community?
KCAW – Water-intensive agriculture that doesn’t require a lot of warm weather. Hmmm. Mushrooms.
White – Hey, I’ve already thought about mushrooms!

White has already scheduled some presentations for this year’s forum, but he’s happy to sign up more. He says this is a good opportunity for innovators to do some outreach.

But, as always, he’s looking for something more productive than pointing out the obvious.

“We really want them to be specific and realistic. Bring more tourists to town is great, but what can we do specifically to achieve that? And we also like to make sure that they can be done within a couple of years.”

White is not averse to the occasional grandiose idea that may take a decade to accomplish. “Even grandiose ideas begin somewhere,” he says.