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Rural development study puts environment at top of the list

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Community leaders got an update on a long term economic plan that’s been in the works since last year. That’s when a forum was pulled together by the Soldotna Rotary club and Joe Kashi with the intent of trying to map out a new economic direction for the Kenai Peninsula.

Trying to put together a plan like this doesn’t happen without some kind of framework. This whole program is being guided with a system provided by the Western Rural Development Center. That’s a consortium of university programs throughout the West that help provide all kinds of socio-economic data so communities can develop a long term vision for local economies as traditional models become outdated. Last year saw the first big step, which was to conduct a randomized survey to try and find out what the priorities are for residents across the Peninsula. I spoke with Dr. Don Albrecht from Utah State University. He heads the rural development center. He says the survey found that on the Kenai, people say they prioritize maintaining the natural environment.

On what sets the Kenai Peninsula apart from other study areas:

“We’ve done this process in about 45 communities. (The) Kenai Peninsula Borough the fourth one, less than ten percent, where more emphasis was placed on environmental control than economic growth. The others are Kauai, Hawaii; Moab, Utah, which is a big amenity community and St. George, Utah which is a larger community that has good jobs and everything already, so they’re looking at maintaining a clean environment as a place to live. So what this means is people want good jobs, better jobs than the ones they have, but they want jobs that are not going to harm the environment in any way because that’s really the reason people are here.”

On state level politics and finances affecting rural development:

“What we have found is people want to go to a place that has good jobs, they want to go to a place that has clean water, clean air, outdoor recreation opportunities; but at the same time, they want good schools for their kids, they want good colleges to send their kids to. Colleges and universities tend to be an economic development engine. So in the long run if not in the short run (state budget cuts) are going to have harmful impacts. The traditional types of jobs are declining...because of technology, so the new economy is dependent on having a good place to live and good education. No matter what happens statewide or nationally, the community has to do the best they can with the cards they’re dealt.”

On the importance of local investment in development:

“We’re looking at things that are going to bring in money from the outside and get people with skills, that want to live here. That can happen. At the same time, there’s things the community can do to make this attractive to them, including retaining the environment you have but also trails to walk your dogs and all those little things...that just make a town a really nice place to live, I think those are important to keep people here once they’re here.” This process, which goes by the acronym ASAP, area sector analysis process, isn’t a quick one. In the next phase, the data gathered to this point helps refine where communities might want to look when looking for that long term, outside investment. Dr. Albrecht will be back this fall to talk more about how to start building that vision for the future.

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