A renewed commitment to economic vitality in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough was at the heart of a luncheon today, where the Borough’s Economic Development Strategic Plan was unveiled.
Some among the 120 business leaders and public sector representatives gave impassioned speeches about how the MAT-SU is on the cusp of transitioning from suburbia to a magnet for quality development and jobs in Alaska.
“We’re no longer a bedroom community. The reverse commute is starting to happen,” said Dave Johnston, President of the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Since 2000, the MAT-SU has grown 42 percent in population, according to State Economist Neal Fried, who was also present at the event.
Johnston was among the 180 people who were tapped to work with the Borough to help create the plan. The Borough hired TIP Strategies, Inc., an Austin-based firm that has done hundreds of such plans and that understands trends across the nation. TIP employees spent 40 or more days here researching with four stakeholder groups, seven focus groups, and meetings with public entities, and workforce development representatives during a 10-month process. Borough Manager John Duffy said the plan is original.
“Well over 120 were private sector businesses helping us with this, that is fantastic, first time that’s ever happened with any planning development in the Borough. And so we’re looking forward to having a great plan that can be implemented and result in the expansion of higher paying jobs out here, recruitment of new businesses, and improved quality of economic growth, which is the whole purpose of this planning effort,” Duffy said.
Five goals, 23 strategies and 80 actions will make the plan come to life.
Jon Roberts, Tip’s Managing Director, addressed the crowd and was asked to give tangible work that had to happen in the near term for the plan to gain legs.
Roberts told them: a Borough-wide business government partnership has to form that supports economic, and a catalyst project with mixed-use development such as a university medical district has to be established.
“I think it matters for three reasons. Number one it’s where employment is, so we really have to build on that employment base, and if you just let the jobs that are part of the medical complex, where are the services for those people, where do they live. So if we start thinking about that as a single comprehensive development then whole new opportunities arise for employment, so I think that’s number one.
Number two is I think people in the Borough need to see with their own eyes what something like this represents, to see what a true catalyst project looks like, and I think that would raise the bar overall for everyone in the Borough. And third I think it’s an economic development magnet. It’s a basis for recruiting other companies, private sector companies, beyond the medical and education….Let me repeat them, because I really feel strongly about them: number one it allows mixed use development with retail and residential, it’s a way to attract talent to the area, it’s a place where you can recruit companies to. That’s the kind of dynamic that a catalyst blue ribbon project would give.”
Jake Libby, owner of Crystal Clear Creative, worked on the plan as a member of the steering committee. He says by addressing the overall stereotypes for the “Valley” the plan has actions that can change the overall assumptions about the customer base in the MAT-SU, which would draw more investment. The MAT-SU is only beginning to shake off an inherited nickname with the word “trash” in it.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the amount of damage done to MAT-SU Borough in general with that campaign, I invested $30 k of my own money four years ago trying to get a movie theater built here and was virtually laughed out of every venture capitalist I presented to in Anchorage, every one of them,” Libby said. “Because the assumption was people had a hard time buying dinner, much less paying for a movie. And it was pervasive. Everyone had that same philosophy. But what’s interesting is every business that walks out on a limb, takes the plunge and opens up here, whether IHOP or Target or Sportsmen’s Warehouse, every one of them consistently breaks opening records, the IHOP is a great example, they had almost double their largest opening ever on the West coast when they opened in little Wasilla, Alaska.”
Elizabeth Rensch, principal for a water testing business, Analytica Group, is an example of new businesses that are coming to the MAT-SU.
The Borough has done a heck of a good job in terms of looking toward the future and moving away from the past and getting away from the rhetoric and actually walking the walk. They’ve come up with a plan, they’ve worked very closely with the community, not only this community but Anchorage and gotten a lot of advice, and I think they’ve taken that to heart in the final plan. And I really hope it doesn’t sit on the shelf. We became part of the Valley a year ago. We have businesses and choices in terms of opening businesses all over the state but we decided to put a stake in the ground out here,” Rensch said.
Gary Wolf, owner of Wolf Architecture, is an example of a business that has been here awhile and has created modern buildings.
“The plan is really exciting, but it needs to have follow through from our elected officials. I’m really excited about the opportunities it presents to improve the image and the business environment out here in the Valley. …If we don’t present a community that we’re proud of how can you expect people to be proud of it and respect it when they come out and visit?...We’re just beginning, we’re just beginning to realize that we need to make changes to be successful,” Wolf said.
Among the obstacles to economic development the consultants found is a dearth of class A office buildings. If a business wants such space, today they have to build it themselves.
Three MAT-SU Borough Assembly Members attended: Deputy Mayor Lynne Woods, Assembly Member Vern Halter, and Assembly Member Ron Arvin.
Borough Economic Development Director Dave Hanson worked extensively on the plan and brought the many groups together. Hanson said he would not be able to sleep at night if action items in the plan are not taken up.
Photos by Patty Sullivan/MSB. Top photo: Jon Roberts, Tip Strategies, 2nd, Tricia Costello, Talkeetna Chamber President, and Assembly Member Vern Halter and radio station owner John Klapperich enjoy conversation. 3rd, A crowd of 120 partakes in the unveiling of the plan. 4th, Jake Libby. 5th, Elizabeth Rensch. 6th, MAT-SU Deputy Mayor Lynne Woods.