Industry Outlook Forum looks to diversity

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Kara Moriarty’s title.

Next month’s Industry Outlook Forum will hinge around the diversity of the Kenai Peninsula’s economy, featuring speakers from nearly every industry.

The annual event, coordinated and hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, brings together state officials, business owners and industry leaders from around the state to look at the upcoming year for their industries. The lineup features speakers from oil and gas companies, the health care industry, the cannabis industry and the state, among other businesses.

Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Executive Director Tim Dillon said he and events coordinator Caitlin Coreson took a look at the industries on the Kenai Peninsula early in the process and wanted to make sure as many as possible were represented.

“When you look across the board, we’ve got almost every industry,” he said.

The Industry Outlook Forums typically include speakers from a variety of businesses, but in the past — like the rest of Alaska’s economy — much of it has been weighted in the oil and gas industry or other manufacturing. As the oil and gas market contracts and companies scale down operations or withdraw from the state, the buzzword from the state and from economic development organizations is “diversification.”

The Kenai already has that, Dillon said. Past analyses have shown that while oil and gas extraction leads the peninsula in total earnings, the area has a broader spread of jobs over sectors like commercial fishing, tourism, retail, management and government, giving the economy more protective structure to buffer against any one industry’s downturn.

The forum still includes oil and gas speakers. A Hilcorp Alaska representative will speak, as will an Alaska Gasline Development Corporation representive and Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Kara Moriarty. However, they’re spaced between speakers like Peninsula Community Health Services CEO Al Wall, PRL Logistics owner Ron Hyde, Red Run Cannabis Company co-owner Marc Theiler and Kenaitze Indian Tribe CEO Bart Garber.

Several government officials will speak as well, including Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Mike Navarre, the immediate past mayor of the borough.

Representing the fishing industry will be three of the Alaska Humanities Forum’s Salmon Fellows — Jennifer Gibbins, Ricky Gease and Mary Peltola. The highly divisive fishing industry can be difficult to broach, and Dillon said the program specifically brought together individuals from different parts of the industry to bridge some of the divides between user groups. Earlier this year, when he first met with some of the fellows, he said he left with the impression that unification was the goal.

“What I got out of the whole thing was that these people really want to work together,” he said.

They also made a point to include the Seward, Kenai, Soldotna and Homer chambers of commerce as partners, Dillon said. For the past several years, the event has been hosted in Kenai or Soldotna — this year, it will take place at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex — but eventually they’d like to look at rotating it among the major cities on the peninsula, he said.

The forum comes amid an ongoing economic downturn in the state that has not let up yet, according to Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development data. The state has been losing jobs since the fourth quarter of 2015 and the unemployment rate has risen to 7.2 percent, as of October 2017, according to the Department of Labor’s December Trends report. That’s now significantly higher than the national average unemployment rate of 2.2 percent.

Most of the job losses were on the North Slope, though the Gulf Coast region lost 1.3 percent of its jobs between October 2016 and October 2017, according to the Department of Labor. The Kenai Peninsula is included in that region, but so is Anchorage, so the numbers aren’t flat across the board. According to Kenai Peninsula-specific data from the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, employment actually grew 1.1 percent in the borough between the second quarters of 2016 and 2017.

Regardless of which industries are growing or contracting on the peninsula, Dillon said they want to include everyone in the forum. He said their mission is to support all legitimate businesses, regardless of the controversy or sector.

Amid the economic downturn, it’s important to be both optimistic and realistic, he said.

“You don’t want to look at things with rose-colored glasses, but no one wants to invest in something that’s failing,” he said. “You end up walking a tight rope.”

The Industry Outlook Forum is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2018 from 8:30 a.m.–6 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Kalifornsky Beach Road. It’s free and open to the public with registration available through the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s website.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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