We recently had the opportunity to attend the 2021 Southeast Conference in Haines. Every year, the conference showcases economic development opportunities and projects throughout the Southeast Alaska region. This year’s conference focused on various pecuniary topics including updates on the visitor industry, natural resource development, health care infrastructure, broadband initiatives, mariculture, energy projects and Alaska Marine Highway Transportation plans.

Some key groups from Ketchikan were present, such as Tongass Federal Credit Union, the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, Grow Ketchikan, Foraged and Found, Vigor, Small Business Development Center, and the City of Ketchikan. These important local stakeholders represented our local community investment in the economic well-being and future of our Alaska region.

The conference consisted of presentations on “Southeast by the Numbers” by Rain Coast Data, which focused on economic and demographic changes from the previous year. The main takeaway here is that COVID-19 played a major role in economic loss (as we all know) by reducing employment in the visitor industry, which trickled down to local government’s inability to operate with a predictable budget. The panel on the federal infrastructure bill and American Rescue Plan Act 2021 highlighted the amounts of money that are to be slated for Alaska and various projects expected to be funded. AMHS ferries will receive $1 billion in funds for new construction with the promise of funding a pilot program for electric ferries. Its important to note that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough will be receiving up to $2.7 million in ARPA funding, which will be used to back fill our budget deficit and help alleviate our local government’s budgetary woes.

Tourism, being one of the main economic drivers in Southeast, had a panel of industry experts from Alaska Airlines to Royal Caribbean cruise line. The group thanked Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was in attendance, and the congressional delegation for exempting Alaska from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which brought a limited yet economically impactful cruise ship season to the region. Going forward, Murkowski stated that she would work with other congressional members to fully exempt Alaska from the PVSA.

The conference showcased economic development projects that are currently being worked on throughout Southeast, including Ucore’s mining investment in our community, Alaska Power & Telephone’s increased broadband access to Prince of Wales Island, and various mariculture companies’ investments in the “blue economy.” Forged and Found and Seagrove Kelp, both mariculture-based companies, explained their commitment to growing, harvesting, and exporting products that are produced locally. Southern Southeast is well positioned to expand the mariculture industry, which will provide economic diversification.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough delegation met with Elliot Bay Design Group to discuss new airport ferry design, investment, and construction of new electric ferries to improve access to Gravina Island, all of which will increase our local investment and partnership with Vigor shipyard.

Thank you for trusting us as your elected officials to represent our community as we stand together and work towards a brighter future for all of Southeast Alaska.

Austin Otos and Amanda (AJ) Pierce are members of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly.