Aerial view of Angoon. (Emily Russell/KCAW Photo)

The Admiralty Island village of Angoon has received nearly 2 million dollars in federal funding to build a visitor center. The relief money is meant to combat economic impacts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Local leaders hope it will boost a homegrown cultural tourism industry.

Angoon doesn’t get big cruise ships, even in non-pandemic times. But they still normally see a small but steady stream of tourists in the summer. There are a handful of fishing lodges and a couple of small boats bringing visitors to the island community of around 500.

There aren’t a lot of services for the visitors who do come, which is one of the reasons local leaders applied for funding to build a visitor center.

“A place for people to go, a place for people to be able to get coffee or a small snack while they’re in town. And having restrooms available,” Board Chair for Kootznoowoo, Inc., Melissa Kookesh said. Kootznoowoo is Angoon’s local Native corporation. “Because that’s one of the things that we don’t have in the community is a place, basically, that can house all of those things.”

She said Kootznoowoo, the city, and Angoon’s Tribal government, the Angoon Community Association, have been working together for the past couple of years to figure out what a community-led eco and cultural tourism industry could look like locally. They found out at the end of April that they’d received a competitive 1.78 million dollar grant from the Economic Development Association or the EDA. They’ll use the money to build a 2000-square-foot visitor and retail center on city-owned land, which Kookesh said could also serve as a cultural hub for the community. 

“I’m excited about the opportunity to have dance groups in a visitor center performing, but also learning, being able to learn their songs, learn the history of the songs, being able to sell items that they’ve made, that they’ve worked really hard on, you know with beading, weaving, carving, what have you,” Kookesh said. “It’s a great opportunity, and I’m just excited about it for us and happy that it’s our turn for having something like this put in our community.”

So far, Angoon is one of nine Alaska grantees to receive a piece of the 1.5 billion dollars allocated to the EDA from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, to help communities hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Other grantees include the Alaska Travel Industry Association and a workforce development program in Fairbanks. 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Craig Buerstatte said the need in Angoon is great: The 24-month unemployment rate is more than double the national average. 

“So many communities have been hit hard particularly in travel and tourism, but Angoon especially,” he said.

But it’s not just local need that made their application stand out. Buerstatte said they also demonstrated strong community support and a lot of potential.

“It has a great natural asset in its geography–the land, the water–and has been attracting tourists for some time. And we just want to build on that capacity with a new visitor center to hopefully, not just continue to bring tourists, but bring more of them and more frequently,” he said.

Kookesh said this is just one piece of a broader effort to grow local tourism. The community has also received funding to expand a trail and create an app-based cultural and historical walking tour, for example. She said it’s not only an opportunity to bring economic development to Angoon. It’s a chance to share the natural beauty and local culture with the world.

“Being able to tell the history, but also just telling it from our perspective and the resiliency of our community and how we’re still there, and you know, just trying to thrive and flourish and be able to tell our story from our perspective,” she said.

The project planning is still in the preliminary stages, and she said they’ll look to youth, elders and all community members for ideas as it progresses. Kookesh said they’re looking forward to welcoming more visitors to Angoon once it’s safe to open up.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.