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Regional development programs fight to stay afloat

May 17th, 2013 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

Alaska Regional Development Organizations across Alaska are shuffling funds to stay afloat until the next legislative session after a bill reauthorizing the program failed to pass during this term. The bill, which garnered wide support from legislators and public testimony, failed after unrelated and more controversial legislation was added onto it.

A month has passed since the decision came down, and the small staff at the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference believes they've found a way to keep going until January - at which time they hope new legislation will reinstate the program.

"We will be able to get by for a year because we have a little bit of savings," said SWAMC Executive Director Andy Varner. "Now, if we're in this position a year from now, then it's a different question."

Statewide, the program was expected to acquire more than $850,000 this year after the reauthorization, which meant more than $4 million in matching federal dollars.

After 25 years of providing economic development support in 12 regions across the state, the ARDOR program came to a fairly unexpected halt this April when the bill extending its quarter-century life failed in the 11th hour.

When his bill to extend the weathervane hair crab and scallop fisheries for an additional five years came to a halt in the House Fisheries Committee, Sen. Donny Olson attached that bill language to House Bill 71 - the ARDOR reauthorization.

This move was strongly opposed by Fisheries Committee Chair Paul Seaton of Homer. A late flurry to find a compromise ended with both reauthorizations dead in the water.

The dispute was partially over the Legislature's single-subject rule for bills, and partially over disagreement about the particular fishery Olson was seeking to extend. Seaton's concerns included a trend in that fishery for consolidated ownership of permits and the fact that unlike most Alaska fisheries they are vessel-based permit programs. Usually the permit is attached to an individual person, not a fishing vessel. And in the hair crab fishery, the majority of permits were owned out of state.

It was clear to him, Varner said, that the connection of the fisheries legislation with the less controversial ARDOR bill was what killed the reauthorization.

"I have constituents that hold these permits," Olson said in an email. "Letting the program die does two things. It makes their permit worthless. What they paid thousands of dollars for will just be a piece of paper. (And) they can no longer fish and harvest the resource. This is a loss of economic activity."

The Coastal Villages Region Fund owns two of the hair crab permits. The CDQ group partners with the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation - which is in Sen. Olson's region.

Five years ago, this same kind of legislation to extend those fisheries passed in a similar fashion, Olson said, providing a precedent he thought protected both bills.

"It is very disappointing," Olson said. "I've asked the governor and his administration to do everything they can to keep the ARDORs afloat until the Legislature can reinstate the program next session."

The southwest ARDOR program - and its staff of two - promotes economic development in the Bristol Bay, Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Island and Kodiak regions. That's an area roughly the size of Oregon. If they are forced to pare down to one staffer, Varner said, responding effectively to their region will become impossible.

Luckily they do have savings and the other staff member will be gone commercial fishing in Kodiak this summer. Those things will buy them some time.

Not all ARDOR offices across the state were able to retain their staff.

In April the Alaska Journal of Commerce reported that at least one of the nonprofits - the Copper Valley Development Association - had to let a staff member go.

Like the other ARDOR nonprofits in Alaska, they receive state funds as well as matching federal funds.

In Kotzebue, the borough's economic and development energy group is scrambling to come up with funding for its small business grants administrator, a position largely funded by ARDOR. That position distributes grants to small businesses and commercial fisherman in the Northwest.

"With that going away, and the combination of the federal Economic Development Administration going through cutbacks, it put a strain on our budget," said Fred Smith, director of the Northwest Arctic Borough's economic development department. "It will affect what we can do as a department."

The Northwest Arctic is going through its budgeting process right now, and loss of those funds are contributing to cutbacks for the region. The borough assembly will vote on its FY2014 budget next week, and are currently considering cuts that include the public library, the community arts centers and other community programs.

"It's unfortunate that a program that looked like it was going to get reauthorized came to a stand still the way it did," Smith said. "It's not like there wasn't interest or an intent not to reauthorize. It was the politics of the legislature stopping it from moving forward."

Both Smith and Varner have already heard widespread support for new ARDOR legislation and are hopeful that the reauthorization will happen in a timely manner come January.

SWAMC took another hit this year when the Regional Energy Planning program through the Alaska Energy Authority was also cut. While he understands budget strain and the necessity of cutbacks, Varner said, funding for any kind of energy improvements in Alaska is money well spent. "It was definitely a double whammy for us," he said.

Olson is strongly in support of ARDOR reauthorization, he said, and the regional problem solving it offers.

"It is important for all of Alaska," Olson said of the ARDOR programs. "We have to think, collaborate and unite regionally in Alaska. We must do this, not to pit one region against another, but because what might succeed on economic and energy terms in the Arctic doesn't necessarily mean it will work in Western Alaska, the Interior, the Y-K, Southeast, or the other regions of the state. The ARDORs are on the frontline of this regional cooperation and their success is Alaska's success."

It is unclear whether or not legislation regarding the hair crab and scallop fisheries will come up again in 2014.


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