Soldotna Rotary spearheads economic survey

The Soldotna Rotary Club is leading a new attempt to tackle economic questions with an assessment meant to match the interests of communities with types of businesses that could locate there.

Sociologist Don Albrecht, director of Utah State University’s Western Rural Development Center, spoke Monday to members of the Soldotna Rotary Club and other local business people, government administrators, and advocates at the Soldotna Public Library. As part of a book project, Albrecht has been visiting rural communities whose traditional economies based on agriculture, natural resource extraction, or manufacturing are being whittled away by automation, market change, economic globalization, and other contemporary trends.

“In each case, employment in their traditional historic field, what they’ve been depending on, has been going down,” he said. “And in every case, they’re struggling… Some of them are working on it and some of them aren’t. Some of them are convinced that 1960 is going to come back again, and by darn everything’s going to be OK. Some of them recognize that it isn’t, and it’s time to move on. So we developed, my colleagues and I, a process called ASAP. It’s a process where we go to a community and help them find out what will work. “

Albrecht’s Area Sector Analysis Process, or ASAP, uses an algorithm — “basically, it’s like eHarmony.com,” Albrecht said — to match industries and communities based on their interests and attributes, as measured by detailed academic surveys designed and processed by Albrecht and team members at the University of Nevada, Utah State, and the University of Idaho.

Several towns and counties in Albrecht’s home state of Utah, as well as some in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho have used ASAP results in local efforts to shift their economies. Soldotna Rotary Club past-president Joe Kashi invited Albrecht to Soldotna after noticing reading his work — particularly Albrecht’s 2014 book “Rethinking Rural: Global Community and Economic Development in the Small Town West” — and said ASAP could help produce local economic ideas driven by a variety of groups, helping to diversify Alaska’s economy “beyond the megaprojects that are the typical government effort.”

“It occurred to me that in addition to something top-down, there’s an advantage of having something bottom up, drawing on the wisdom of the business community,” Kashi said. “… Rotary, since it’s not partisan and advocates no point of view except tolerance, community service, and the like, seemed to be a pretty good vehicle for all that. Especially because it draws throughout the rest of the community, the business and professional community largely. So I happened to be looking around, and Don seemed to have written the leading book on it, so I contacted him.”

Kashi invited Albrecht last July to speak at a similar gathering to generally discuss the local economy. Kashi invited him to return this year for a more concrete discussion of how the Kenai Peninsula could use his method.

ASAP begins with a survey asking takers to rate characteristics of their communities and make choices about the relative values of different economic, social, and environmental priorities. Through a system of weighted variables, Albrecht’s team compares survey results to other surveys completed by businesses, crunching in other data on the town such as crime rates recorded by the FBI or environmental quality metrics from the EPA. With these inputs, a matching algorithm expresses what business types — as defined by the North American Industry Classification System — may suit a community by way of two scores: “desirability” and “compatibility.”

“Desirability is whether what the business brings to the table is desirable to what the residents of the community want,” Albrecht said. “Compatibility is if the community has what the business needs.”

Business types that score well on both measures may be desirable targets for local entrepreneurs, business-promoting government officials, or marketing agencies. At Monday’s meeting, some members of these groups expressed interest in the idea.

Kenai City Planner Elizabeth Appleby said Kenai’s administration “has some businesses in mind that we want to attract to Kenai and go after, so it would be good to see if those businesses match with desirability and compatibility, and maybe we’d get some other ideas.”

This year Kenai began reforming how it manages its 5,057 acres of municipal land. Much of this land is available for lease by businesses, though about 81 percent of the lease property is currently vacant. This includes the Kenai Airport Industrial Park — 19 industrial-zoned lots in the woods near the airport on Marathon Road, which have stood vacant since the city government gave a contract for their construction in April 2013.

Staff under Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander are presently starting work on an inventory of which properties are needed for city purposes, with the intent to market unneeded land. Kenai’s present budget includes $24,343 to hire a land manager for technical work on that inventory.

“We’ve met with people who have ideas (for business development) and most of them have to do with buying city land, because that’s a pretty big resource we have,” Appleby said. “I don’t know if this process would help us know specifically how to update the code, but it could maybe help us focus our efforts in marketing.” Like if a brewery matches, maybe it makes sense to send a city representative to the brewery to start talking with people who might be interested in locating here in Kenai.”

Executive Director Summer Lazenby of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing said her group could also use an ASAP data set.

“If we’re able to get a data set that’s Kenai Peninsula Borough wide, versus the four main communities, it could potentially speak to — if there’s a certain tourism-related business — which of the four communities would be a better fit, or if borough-wide is a better fit,” Lazenby said. “Or maybe it’s not the best thing for this area at this time.”

Tourism, Lazenby said, is also overly dependent on an unreliable resource.

“Tourism right now is a changing platform,” she said. “We have a history of fish — historically tourism has lived and died by how well the fishing industry has done. That’s still valid to this day, but I think there’s a lot more this community has to offer in the realm of tourism.”

Much of the afternoon’s discussion was about practical questions of carrying out the survey — how it should be distributed, how local the results should be to specific areas of the peninsula, and who would execute and pay for it. Albrecht said his group will provide the survey forms and process them without local financial commitment, though local groups would have to fund and carry out the survey’s distribution and collection. Kashi said the Rotary Club, with a committee of interested volunteers, would continue leading the effort.

Later in the day, Gov. Bill Walker arrived for a speech giving a statewide take on the theme of moving beyond Alaska’s traditional extraction-based economy into “value-added” businesses.

“We have become a bit of a colony,” Walker said. “A colony is when you take your natural resources and ship them off someplace else and they turn them into a product. An economy is when you take that raw material and continue to work until it leaves with a price tag on it, a barcode or something. It means you’ve wrung every job out of that resource. … So how do we take those resources and turn them into careers, not just jobs? Jobs sounds to me like a construction season of some sort. Turn them into careers for the next generation and the current generation.”

Such a change could begin in local economies, he said.

“Sometimes in Alaska, we’re always swinging for the fence,” Walker said. “Give us one more big project and we’ll survive for another 50 years. That’s important. I don’t diminish it — trust me, I play in that arena as well. But it’s the smaller ones, the base hits, that I’m equally impressed with.”

Changing local economies by putting ASAP data into practice is a long, hard job for local groups, governments, and individuals, Albrecht said. The real work begins when the results are released.

“If there’s buy-in from elected officials that really helps,” Albrecht said. “Almost everywhere there’s a group of people who take it and run with it, and there are almost always people who start resisting. ‘This means we’re going to do things different from how we’ve always done them, and by darn we don’t want to change’ and that kind of stuff. I guess that’s human nature, that change is difficult. But choosing the direction of change is important, rather than letting the direction choose you, because the world is going to change whether you want it to or not.”

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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