Charting a Course for Prosperity in Rural Alaska

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Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska Business Monthly

Dennis Gray Jr. sets his fishing gear with a calm and practiced rhythm in the Gulf of Alaska, south of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  “My ancestors have fished these waters since the last Ice Age,” Gray says as he slides his knife through the crimson gills of a coho salmon.

Gray is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He’s also the city administrator for Hoonah, a Tlingit village carved into the slender coast of Chichagof Island.

Aboard his humming freezer troller, Gray relies on a time-tested strategy: selecting hoochies and flashers, adjusting depth and speed to catch salmon. But back in town, he and his community of 800 concentrate their efforts on another silvery target: building prosperity in rural Alaska.

Challenges confront hundreds of isolated villages across Alaska. Despite being just seventy miles west of the state capital, Hoonah remains accessible only by boat or small plane. Goods and services are barged in, and that’s costly. Energy prices are more than double what Juneau residents pay. And the unemployment rate for the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, which includes Angoon, Hoonah, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs, and Pelican, was more than twice as high as the state’s average in 2015, due in part to a lack of year-round jobs. Still, many Alaska Native families in Hoonah trace their ancestry back for centuries with roots anchored to specific shorelines, forests, and fishing grounds.

And despite its isolation, Hoonah’s location helps. There are bountiful fisheries and the town’s position between Juneau and Glacier Bay makes it a strategic and attractive stop for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver. According to the city of Hoonah’s 2016 economic report, the number of available jobs and average annual wages have all risen since 2010. The median family income jumped 15 percent and Hoonah’s sales tax revenue jumped 46 percent, according to the report.

While every rural Alaska town and village has its own unique economic challenges, the way Hoonah is facing theirs can offer insight and inspiration to others seeking development options.

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Adapt with Authenticity

“Adapt or die,” says Gray with a smile as he captains his freezer troller past a brightly lit cruise ship pulling into town. “Hoonah has always done a good job of transitioning from one industry to the next. We are good fishermen, we were good loggers, and now we are good tour operators.” Icy Strait Point, established by Huna Totem Corporation in 2004, is a cultural ecotourism port built on the site of Hoonah’s historic cannery, which operated until 1953.

Gray vividly remembers the energy in town when Hoonah decided to invest in Icy Strait and tourism—even though it was contentious. “I was twenty-two, new to the city council, and scared as heck,” he says. Huna Totem requested city support to connect the historic site to city water and electricity. Some Hoonah residents were not convinced. “I’d say the community was about 40/60 against developing tourism. People were like: ‘What? That’s never going to happen. A little Indian village, why would tourists even come to Hoonah?’ Eventually, we spent our last savings to put in a waterline… because we believed in … what it might do for Hoonah.”

Before Icy Strait, tourists seldom visited. Today, according to the city, Icy Strait Point supports one-third of the city’s sales tax base. Huna Totem Corporation says more than 156,000 visitors arrived this year on eighty-three cruises, including Disney Cruise Lines—a number the company expects will exceed one hundred next year. And Icy Strait’s workforce is 80 percent local.

According to Russell Dick, CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, authenticity and community buy-in led to Icy Strait’s success. “If there is any place we are going to invest our money, it is going to be at home, putting our people to work,” Dick says.

“It’s not Disneyland. [Icy Strait Point] is an incredibly authentic port and done in a way that meets the expectations of the cruise lines without having to compromise our values.”

Sharing Home and Culture

Britney Jack began working with Icy Strait Point while in high school. Today, the twenty-two year old is the company’s logistics coordinator. “I take a lot of ownership and pride in working here and so [do] a lot of other local people ... This is our home and our culture. We want to share it,” Jack says.

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Gordon Greenwald is a master carver in Hoonah who also sits on several city boards including Hoonah’s economic development committee. Since Icy Strait opened thirteen years ago, Greenwald has seen progressively more tourists wander into the center of town, some visiting the carving shed where he works.

“Honestly, I was not in favor of it [Icy Strait Point] in the very beginning because I thought it was going to change us and we would end up like South Franklin [Street] of Juneau or Ketchikan. I don’t want that for Hoonah and I’m afraid that’s the direction they are going to go,” says Greenwald. “But in the meantime, it’s a positive thing and an employment base. Yes, it’s a service industry [and] it’s not a $35-an-hour job, but it’s better than nothing, and I think it has helped put Hoonah on the map.”

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Since Icy Strait launched, nineteen new locally-owned businesses have opened in Hoonah, most catering to visitors. Tax revenue from Icy Strait is being invested in community assets such as sidewalks, a youth center, and the school system.

“Hoonah in the past had a lot of male-dominated employment opportunities with fishing and timber,” Gray says. “Tourism presents more widespread opportunities for women with kids and even grade-school students who work after school or dance when ships are in.”

Collaborate and Diversify

Some 150 miles of old logging roads weave throughout the forests, rivers, and valleys surrounding Hoonah. These roads, maintained by the US Forest Service, support local subsistence users as well as tourism guides and charters. They’re also important to a collaborative land management partnership called the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership that includes Huna Totem Corporation, Sealaska, the City of Hoonah, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and the US Forest Service.

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According to Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, some of these entities—particularly environmental nonprofits and Alaska Native corporations—have not always seen eye-to-eye.

But the organizations have adopted “this new collaborative way of working. This is the… future of how to do natural resource work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably,” says Starbard. “It is possible to have all stakeholders at the table building an effective private-public partnership for land stewardship and watershed management.”

A core goal is to create career opportunities in natural resources and land stewardship for locals.

“[It’s] about diversifying the economy in Hoonah,” adds Dick. “Tourism is not for everybody, but doing things like harvesting commercial blueberries, for example, are great opportunities.”

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“Alaskan blueberries, black huckleberries, dwarf blueberries, bog blueberries,” rattles off Donovan Smith, who belongs to the partnership. “We’ve learned a lot about all the different plants and types of habitats where they thrive.”

This year, local pickers sold blueberries to Goldbelt Corporation, as well as ice cream and coffee shop, Coppa, in Juneau. Juneau’s Amalga Distillery also purchased one hundred pounds of blueberries for its blueberry vodka.

And while harvesting blueberries doesn’t bring in anywhere near the money that the commercial fishing fleet earns, it creates economic options for Hoonah. And the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is about far more than just blueberries: the field crew traverses across the landscape from Sealaska watersheds to US Forest Service lands to map and monitor salmon streams, report on road conditions, thin forest stands for timber production, and restore salmon habitat.

“In terms of our youth and early career residents, the partnership creates professions for land use management. If you want to work with fish, you don’t have to be a commercial fisherman, you can be a fisheries biologist and can come home even if you went out to college and studied science. You can bring that expertise back to Hoonah,” says Starbard.

Strategic Infrastructure

Kristi Styers dishes up a holistic view of her hometown’s economy while bouncing her daughter Alfie on her knees at Fishermen’s Daughter, the restaurant she opened in 2011.

“Everyone has to eat,” says Styers. “[So] we really see how the economy is doing. When fishing is good, we feel it. When it is great weather or a full cruise ship is in town, we feel it.”

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Styers also felt it when Hoonah secured federal economic development agency grants and state legislative grants to invest $5.5 million in a boat haul-out that attracted more outside revenue.

“[Now] the boatyard stays full in the spring and the fall. It really stretched out our season,” says Styers, who keeps Fishermen’s Daughter open May to November, three months longer than during her first year. And when Huna Totem Corporation and the city installed a $22 million deep-water dock, more cruise companies could stop in Hoonah, and Styers saw even more diners.

That’s no accident. According to Gray, the city invests purposefully in infrastructure that catalyzes far-reaching economic impact in town for new industries like boat repair, old industries like fishing, and ancillary businesses like Fishermen’s Daughter.

Thinking Outside City Limits

Hoonah can’t do it alone and is looking to surrounding villages to ease some of the costs associated with isolated island living. “Savings can happen region-wide if we collaborate,” Gray says.

Hoonah hired a consultant to look at the feasibility of Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee, Pelican, and Kake forming a borough. “That would help us with school costs,” says Gray. “Neighboring towns have schools of the same size and have the same overhead costs of a superintendent and principal and in theory we could share.” A flourishing school system can help Hoonah cultivate homegrown leaders.  

“For a community to thrive you need to have committed people … in leadership positions [who] are around for the long term,” says Gray.

But Dick sees a Catch 22.

“How do you invest in local leadership? You have to create employment opportunities for good top-notch people to come back. And, if you don’t have that kind of leadership, how do you create those opportunities? It’s really a challenge.”

Cultivating prosperity in isolated Alaska is not easy. However, the coastal community of Hoonah remains dedicated, leaning on collaboration, diversification, adaptation, strategic investments, creativity, and a focus on cultivating local leadership to meet the challenge.

“My biggest hope is that in twenty years, Hoonah remains this place we can all be proud of,” says Styers.

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