Hump Island Oyster Company

Executive Director of Southeast Conference Robert Venables, center, introduces U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, right, and Dana Gartzke, head of the federal Economic Development Administration, on Saturday at the Hump Island Oyster Company tour dock. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Federal CARES Act grants for Southeast Conference and five other Alaska regional development and Native planning organizations were announced Saturday in Ketchikan by U.S. Economic Development Administration chief Dana Gartzke, who cited the nationwide economic woes wrought in recent month by the novel coronavirus.

“This pandemic has touched a lot of lives, both here in Alaska and across our nation,” Gartzke said during an afternoon event at the Hump Island Oyster Co. “We hear a lot of stories … of businesses being challenged with their very existence and we knew something needed to be done.”

Congress passed and the president signed the CARES Act, which provided funding for “financial first responders” such as the Payroll Protection Program administered by the federal Small Business Administration, said Gartzke

The CARES Act also provided $1.5 billion for the Economic Development Administration to “slot in behind the financial first responders” and help communities.

“Our mission has always been to foster long-term economic development, to enhance community infrastructure and resiliency, and address business dislocations and disruptions that communities are facing,” Gartzke said. “… As our nation begins to recover for this historic challenge and our businesses begin to safely reopen, the roles that each of these grantees play here today is going to be really key to that success.”

He announced that Southeast Conference, in addition to the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference — all of which are designated as EDA economic development districts — each will receive $400,000 recovery assistance grants from the EDA.

According to EDA information, Southeast Conference intends to use the funds to address the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Southeast Alaska, develop an economic recovery and resilience plan tied to the Southeast Alaska Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, and hire a regional disaster recovery coordinator to support businesses, industry and Southeast communities.

Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables was present at the event.

He said the organization will continue to support everything that makes the economies and communities of the region prosper and to be the “chief champions” of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Venables added that one area that’s shown great potential in the region is mariculture.

Alaska’s Legislature and entrepreneurs have created a foundation for mariculture in the region, and it’s evident that “if only we just had a little more support, we could really put a plan together to identify those pieces of investment we really need to make sure it happens in order to make this thing the powerhouse that it has the potential to do,” Venables said.

The recovery coordinator position that will be funded through the grant will coordinate those efforts, according to Venables.

The $400,000 grant for the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference will be used to engage that region’s seafood-based industry and communities to create new jobs and investment opportunities in the mariculture and aquaculture industries, and to expand broadband, according to EDA

Shirley Marquardt, who served briefly as executive director of the AMHS through May 2019, is executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.

The former mayor of Unalaska cited the declines in ferry service and the loss of the region’s primary air carrier, Ravn Air, as particular difficulties for that coastal region.

“It’s become a real trial to connect with businesses in our region,” Marquardt said Saturday, adding that a recent focus of SWAMC has been to assist businesses in the region with applying for pandemic relief funds.

“In terms of helping folks make their way through the process of applying, for right now, because everyone is so focused on: ‘What do I do right now,? I have a bank loan, I have a mortgage, I’ve got to pay insurance. I don’t have a shred of revenue to show for it, to do it,’” Marquardt said. “So these are really, really tough times.”

The organization is “super interested ” in mariculture, she said. The EDA grant funds will help the organization with things that they’ve already started working on.

Also attending the event was Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District that will use the grant to provide technical assistance to businesses and communities, and to create an economic resiliency plan.

“This grant is so important because it’s going to allow us to continue to further do our work to prevent and prepare for, and respond to not only the economic injury caused by the coronavirus, but other economic disruptions,” said Dillon, who referenced recent events such as earthquakes and fires that have affected the Kenai during the past couple of years.

“What we’ve got to do is not only protect (communities, businesses and jobs), but be prepared for that next event,” Dillon said. It’s not whether it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. We have to be ready for it.”

Also announced Saturday were $150,000 recovery assistance grants to the Dena’ Nena’ Henash (Tanana Chiefs Conference) in Fairbanks; Kawerak Inc. in Nome; and the Native Village of Utqiagvik. Representatives of the organizations were unable to attend the event.

In addition to Marquardt and Dillon, Venables thanked the EDA for its continued work in Alaska.

“The EDA has always been a rock for all of our districts over the years and especially for Southeast Conference,” Venables said.

Mike Walsh, chief of staff for U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and general counsel of the Commerce Department, said the relationship between the department and Alaska is a strong one, listed off a variety of areas of cooperation.

“It’s a long, solid relationship, and I’m really happy to be here to see it, live,” Walsh said.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan also attended the event, and cited economic effects of the pandemic.

“This is a huge challenge and there’s not a place probably in the country more challenged economically than Alaska — Southeast Alaska to be honest, with the tourism challenges,” Sullivan said.

He was upbeat, however, about Alaska’s existing opportunities.

“This is really important — we all need to think strategically, and look at all the assists we have, whether it’s fishing, mariculture, tourism, strategic minerals, building up the Coast Guard, NOAA vessels, shipbuilding,” Sullivan said. “We have a really real bright future. Period. On things that are already happening. Not pie in the sky. Happening. Our federal partners are helping make this happen.

“So for me, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to get through this … challenge. There’s so many Alaskans, Americans who are hurting, businesses that are on the edge,  but we’ll get through it, right? Stronger, tougher, more resilient. We know we will. And when we do, we’ve got to be able to look up and go, alright, seize this (opportunity), seize this. … We’ll do it.”