Alaska News Nightly: September 8, 2011

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Obama’s Job Speech Receives Mixed Reviews

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Congressional delegation is giving the President’s speech Thursday on jobs mixed reviews, mostly along party lines.  President Obama laid out a plan he’s calling the American Jobs Act.

It would cut payroll taxes and give companies a payroll tax holiday if they add workers or increase wages.  Companies that hire veterans or the long-term unemployed would get tax credits.  And it calls for improving schools and internet access.

SBA Encourages Small Businesses to Export Goods, Services

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The regional manager of the Small Business Administration’s International Trade Finance Programs is in Alaska encouraging small business owners to consider growing sales by exporting their goods and services. Pru Balatero has worked with the SBA for 30 years and says trade treaties with other nations continue to expand and SBA loan guarantees for helping businesses get started with exporting have increased from 2 million to 5 in the past year under the recovery act. He says boosting loan guarantee maximums are designed to stimulate lending.

Balatero says he was at an export conference in Washington in the spring of 2010, when President Obama showed up and introduced his national export initiative to the group. The President set a goal of doubling the nation’s exports within five years and Balatero says last year the nation saw an increase of 20 percent for exports. He says too many small businesses don’t consider how exporting can help grow their company.

Balatero says the SBA has a free online training course called Take your Business Global with an accompanying text book to help businesses get started in exporting.

Balatero will be speaking tomorrow morning at the BP Energy Center in Anchorage as part of the seminar called Successful Exporting in Today’s Global Economy. The event begins at 9 am.

Cost to Build Donlin Mine Increases

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

The price to build the proposed Donlin Gold Mine has shot up by billions of dollars.  That’s according to one of the major developers. NovaGold Resources released a new construction estimate for the remote mine site that puts the figure at $7 billion.

Residents Urge Postal Service to Spare Douglas Post Office

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Juneau residents turned out in force Wednesday night to urge U.S. Postal Service officials not to close the Douglas Post Office.

The branch is on a list with thousands of other post offices nationwide being studied for possible closure by the financially struggling agency. But for the approximately 150 people who packed the Mt. Jumbo Gym Wednesday, it’s more than just a place to pick up mail and send packages. It’s a part of the community.

In fact, Douglas Post Office clerks Lee Kearney and Dean Ruby were grand marshals of the Douglas 4th of July parade last year, as pointed out by John Sandor and several others.

“I would be shocked if there’s another post office in the country whose postal workers served as grand marshals,” said Sandor.

Most of those who testified were Douglas residents, who like the convenience of having a post office nearby. But several said they live on the Juneau side of the bridge, but drive to into Douglas rather than use the federal building station downtown. Jack Cadigan gave three reasons why he prefers Douglas.

“Parking, parking and parking,” Cadigan said. “I counted, perhaps incorrectly, but 13 parking spaces 30 minutes each to service the main post office and the entire federal building – all seven stories and all the other agencies that are there. There’s 15 right down here on Douglas. We can come over here with packages, we can bring them in, we can get them shipped, we can get them mailed. And it’s great.”

Edwin Soto, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 3323 in Juneau, said seniors, people with disabilities, and businesses in Douglas would take the biggest hit if the post office were to close. He argued the Postal Service’s savings would be modest at best, and said the real reason for the agency’s financial problems is a 2006 postal reform law that requires the U.S.P.S. to prefund future retiree health care benefits.

Soto called that “an obligation that no other federal agency or private business must bear.”

Diane Horbochuk, U.S. Postal Service District Manager for Alaska, was one of three Anchorage-based U.S.P.S. officials who heard the testimony. She said public input will be just one of the factors taken into consideration as the agency decides which post offices to shutter. Another factor she mentioned was the cost of running each location. If the Postal Service decides to close the Douglas branch, Horbochuk said there would be an opportunity for the community to appeal.

“At this point we have not made that decision,” stressed Horbochuk. “We’re going to go back and look at all our data, take into account the comments and make a decision. If we do make a decision that goes against what the community feels it should be, then you will be given the notice of what to do for what we would call an appeal. And that would be spelled out and we would post that in the post office.”

The Douglas office is one of 11 in Alaska still on the list for possible closure. The list originally included 36 post offices in the state, but 25 rural locations were spared after community groups voiced concerns.
Earlier this week Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe warned Congress that the Postal Service could lose 10-billion dollars in the fiscal year that closes at the end of this month, and the agency is in danger of defaulting as it reaches its borrowing limit.

Tannery Means Business, Culture for Sitka Tribe

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s tannery is up and running in its own building, at the far end of Halibut Point Road. And now that the business has bought a new home, tribal officials are hoping for its long-term success.

The Sitka Tribal Tannery isn’t new. It began in 2004. But this year, it bought its own building in the 4600 block of Halibut Point Road. And with the help of grants from the federal government, some new equipment is on the way.

Officials with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, which runs the tannery, say they hope this is the beginning of a long life for the operation.

James Young is hoping for the same thing. He’s been working at the tannery for a little more than a year. He’s standing next to an enormous vat of liquid and fur.

“What I have in here two black bears and a brown bear and this is in a pickle,” he says, reaching in and grabbing the brown bear. He slings it up onto a table, spreads it out, and then moves it over to a device called a round knife. He says he spends about four hours a day at this machine, shaving the leather part of the hide down to a uniform thickness.

“You’ve got to know just about how hard to push or pull against it. It takes a little bit of time to learn how far you can pull each time you pull, how big of scallops you can make,” he says.

Away from the roundknife is a small room hidden by a sheet of plastic. Some of the completed hides hang there: Otters, seals, brown bears, a polar bear.

“This was a very fun animal to work on,” he says, holding out the white furry hide. “He’s almost nine-foot long. We only measure from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. This bear’s actually a lot longer than nine feet.”

Right now, Young and another man, Russell James, work full-time at the tannery, with a technician on call. But the tribe estimates that 28 part-time jobs could be created by the tannery’s operation – not at the tannery, but further down the line, in the form of people who can use the tannery’s products to produce their own work.

“We’re producing hides for grandmas and aunties and cousins who live out in the villages or other cities for them to do high quality work and make high quality garments for their kids, their grandchildren, or whoever it is that they’ll be making garments for,” he says.

The tribe began getting requests to start a tannery in the mid-1990s, says Mike Miller, a tribal council member who also sits on the tribe’s marine mammal commission.

“Quite possibly at the time it was more of a cultural component than a business component,” Miller said. “To blend the two together, and timing wise with the sea otter situation, and concerns about overpopulation, this is poised to be able to help address that as well.”

To say nothing, he says, of employment for tribal citizens.

“If they can take a couple hides and turn it into product that they can sell for a good price, then it could be a sizable portion of their annual income,” Miller said. “Those are the things we’re looking at right now. As we hit our stride, of course the tribe is interested in having things that are continually self-sustaining and help put money back into the tribe.”

NPS Ups Denali, Foraker Climbing Fees

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The National Park Service is upping the fee for climbing Denali and Mt. Foraker.  The price hike is aimed at re-cooping the cost of managing mountaineering on the high peaks.

Southeast Cruise Line Plans  2012 Expansion

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Sitka’s home-grown cruise company has wrapped up its first season. And it’s already planning to expand, with sailings to southern Southeast starting next year. Several other small lines also plan to increase capacity in 2012.

Allen Marine has offered whale-watching and other day tours for years. They’ve been popular with independent and cruise-ship tourists stopping in the company’s hometown of Sitka, as well as ports in Ketchikan and Juneau.

Last year, the company announced plans to expand into the small cruise market with a new brand,Alaskan Dream. It readied the 78-passenger Admiralty Dream for week-long roundtrips based out of Sitka.

Vice President Michael Wein says the season started slow.

“By the time we got everything up and running as far as marketing, our May had some very light loads. But every consecutive month we’ve had an increase in bookings and we’re sailing the month of August with very impressive loads,” he says.

A second ship, the 46-passenger Alaskan Dream, was brought into service when needed.

The company is expanding its itineraries in hopes of filling both ships next season. It will add one-way cruises between Juneau and Sitka. And it will begin sailing to Ketchikan.

“We’ll be offering two departure dates of an 11-day cruise that goes from Sitka to Ketchikan. And that’s a complete Southeast Explorer itinerary which has Glacier Bay, Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and of course Hobart Bay and Tracy Arm.”

Alaskan Dream offers the only cruises stopping in Hobart Bay, on the mainland between Juneau and Petersburg. The site, owned by Juneau Native corporation Goldbelt, offers kayaking, ATVs and small, powered inflatable boats.

The Sitka-based company is one of several offering up-close, small-ship voyages in Southeast Alaska. Wein says the difference is in the staff and approach.

“We’ve used the philosophy, which we’re very proud of, is ‘True Alaska with True Alaskans.’ The program we offer shows a complete history of Alaska and what life is like up here in Alaska 12 months out of the year versus just a couple months out of the year,” he says.

Alaskan Dream Cruises is among several small-ship companies expanding Inside Passage sailings next summer. InnerSea Discoveries, American Safari and American Cruise Lines will also increase offerings.

They’re, in part, filling a gap left when small-ship pioneer Cruise West went out of business about a year ago

“I think the cruise industry and the small-ship cruise industry in Southeast is really starting to see a rejuvenation of sorts,” says Hunter McIntosh, chief operating officer of The Boat Company, which sails between Sitka and Juneau.

McIntosh says its two boats, which carry up to a total of 44 passengers, ran at 90 percent occupancy this year. He calls that “phenomenal.”

“I think what’s happening is people are realizing that while our economy is down, and while things are difficult, people still want to take vacations. They still want to be able to relax and they still want to be able to enjoy small ship cruising,” he says.

The nonprofit company does not plan to add vessels or itineraries next season. But McIntosh says it will increase the number of guest-hosted tours. This season saw environmental activist and TV documentary producer Philippe Cousteau.

“We’d like to do more of those types of trips with Robert Glenn Ketchum, who is an Ansel Adams-award-winning photographer, and with one of our business partners, Orvis, bringing fly-fishing guides up. That is the sort of direction that we’re taking,” he says.

Both lines target the upper end of the cruise market. Alaskan Dream charges $1,500 to $7,000 per passenger, depending on trip length and cabin size. The Boat Company fares run up to $10,000.

Read or hear: Small cruise lines send more ships to Alaska