The Alaska Conveyor: (Going Up?) – Attracting others to Alaska rescue Alaska’s schools and economy is not the answer – Alaskans Are.

Edited 2/7 with the help of some AI! Perhaps an “Elevator”?

Four times in the past ten days, I’ve heard our leaders suggest that the answer to our economic and community challenges is to make Alaska a better place for others to come, whether to visit, work, fill our schools, or do business. When I’ve challenged that message and strategy, I am told that if we make Alaska attractive to others, then Alaska will be better for Alaskans. That sounds like another version of trickle-down economics. It is a seductive but distracting starting point that avoids the work we need to do to invest first in our communities and economy so that there are more reasons to stay; then, there is all the more reason for others to come.

I don’t know about others, but I am disappointed watching my brightest friends and students with a “fire in their belly” leave Alaska for better opportunities. Then I become frustrated when I hear our leaders say the answer to our talent and worker drain is to attract more people to move to Alaska. There is something wrong and misguided in this paradox and approach! If our broken economic model is called the “Alaska Disconnect,” this paradox of solving our talent drain by attracting talent is perhaps the “Alaska Conveyor.”

And to be clear, I understand that our current economy depends on the value created by out-of-state businesses developing our resources, companies arriving here to deploy their technologies to solve our challenges, and the flow of talented workers to Alaska to fill our jobs. And I understand that many communities would not survive without the flow of money from the Permanent Fund dividends, federal funds, and industry tax and royalty revenue that helps pay for energy, housing, communications, climate change, disaster recovery, logistics, and more. And finally, I understand that our economic model of a subsidized economy that bites the federal hand that feeds it, filled with the tax revenue our lower 48 friends and family have paid, must not be futher hobbled by the wrong taxes that might do more damage than good.

I’m not opposed to visitors or making Alaska an attractive place to move to and ‘live, work or play.’ Still, we need to rethink a balanced strategy that begins with encouraging people to STAY and let that result in attracting others to join us. It’s the only way to start reducing the Alaska Disconnect cost, made even higher by the high cost of employee turn over and relocation, and the outflow of money used to attract people to visit or move here.

Alaska Insight’s recent episode “Reversing outmigration in Anchorage” dives into the discussion about the exodus of residents we’ve seen for most of a decade and what to do about it. In response, when I shared the episode and challenged on Facebook the repeated approach of our local and state leaders using the same playbook of ‘attracting others,’ I again received the response that ‘if we make Alaska good for visitors, then it’s good for Alaskans.’

I do get it. It makes sense that if others come here and like it, maybe we will also! I received a similar response regarding the state’s ‘attract others to Alaska’ message and budget priorities. However, we have a choice of priorities and where to start: Make Alaska attractive for visitors (near and far), which is good for Alaskan residents, or make Alaska attractive for residents, which is good for visitors.

It is two sides of the same investment coin, but the difference speaks volumes about our spirit, what and why investment is needed, and who is responsible and benefiting. The first suggests that more ‘others’ will save the day, so we don’t have to, and so it makes sense they get the benefits (Think cruise ships, mining, oil/gas, CCUS; and it rationalizes why we close the roadside restrooms and trash pick-up when the visitors leave!). The second approach focusing on Alaskans, suggests we will step up and ‘be the change’ and own the solution. Who we prioritize for attraction to Alaska is similar to the proposed change to the state’s updated Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy that currently puts industry needs first and Alaskan needs last. The CEDS six strategies need to be reversed, and so does our focus on attracting people to Alaska.

Job one of our public leaders is to serve Alaskans and the value they receive and build in Alaska, not to prioritize others who come (corporate and individual) and their value and profit as the means to our secondary benefit. That sounds like more of the same deceptive trickle-down economics we learned only works for those at the top of the trickle.

This thinking goes entirely off the rails when you consider the cost of the Governor’s suggestion that the solution to our school funding is attracting families to Alaska to fill up our schools so the schools get more funding. I don’t know where he thinks the BSA or PFD funds for these new families will come from! I don’t seem to have his ear, or he’d already understand basic economics and the Alaska Disconnect. Here is a link to the show where he explains that we need more kids in school to solve the funding problem, as well as his other thoughts on education.

Finally, let’s not focus on a similar volume-is-better solution with our visitor industry and its economic benefits and forget the innovative visitor industry companies in Juneau, Anchorage, and Seward that did better during the pandemic with fewer visitors. Or, the enjoyment Alaskans had of actually being able to get a camping reservation at Denali! (We are behind Iceland by about 10 years in learning the lesson of “over tourism” and right-sizing the industrial visitor industry.)

We need people to visit and stay in Alaska, but focusing first on the ‘others’ we might attract rather than the Alaskans here isn’t the approach we need now. Said another way, we need to stop the bleeding, but we do that by taking care of the patient first, not calling for replacements for the patient!

Whether we build a great Alaska to attract visitors and workers; or invest in building a great Alaska for Alaskans might seem like a subtle difference, but it says everything about the choice of future we are preparing for the next generation of Alaskans. Our Alaskan spirit is strengthened and better served by the latter rather than the former, and so are the many benefits of healthy and more resilient communities with people and an economy engaged in the transitioning future opportunities, including strengthening unique Alaskan cultural and ecological foundations. Focusing on a traditional model of more visitors, imported workers, and their businesses is not the answer to improving Alaska for Alaskans. Instead, we should fund a balanced approach that invests in a new pipeline of innovation that engages Alaskans in protecting what we love and value about Alaska and assists Alaskans in developing our assets and emerging opportunities.

The first step will be to edit the statewide comprehensive economic development strategies and reverse the six priorities. The second step will be to move some of the funding to attract people and businesses to Alaska and use it to invest in the people and companies here, including filling gaps with innovation and entrepreneurship. The third step would be to redirect the administration’s plan to shift resources to support making it easier for businesses to come to Alaska and instead move them to efforts to speed up permitting and scaling Alaskan companies already here that can grow. These same steps can apply similarly at the local community level.

Ky