Amid state economic woes, Nome focuses on port’s future

Aerial view of Nome’s port. (Photo: Joy Baker/Nome Port Director)
Aerial view of Nome’s port. (Photo: Joy Baker/Nome Port Director)

Alaska’s harsh environment is often used to explain its resilient population. But more recently it’s been the economy that’s tested the toughness of its people. Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of its multi-year and multi-billion dollar plan to drill in the Chukchi, taking with it business from the Norwegian oil company Statoil, and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers put its plan for a deep draft Arctic port on hold.

Alaska’s economic woes are affecting all corners of the state, especially communities that were banking on an Arctic boom. But, in Nome, go to any one of the city’s meetings and it’s all eyes on the future.

Nome’s Port Commission has been working with the McDowell Group, a research and consulting firm based in Anchorage. They’ve partnered together to update the port’s strategic plan. While the winter weather prevented two of the firm’s consultants from attending the meeting in person, the commissioners wasted no time before diving into the details.

Commissioner Charlie Lean, while seemingly un-phased by the Army Corps’ postponement of its Arctic port study, emphasized that Nome must be viewed as a national port rather than a regional port.

“This is for the extended Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea region,” Lean explained, “and whenever we say ‘regional’ everybody thinks Norton Sound, but we need to have a different word and think about a broader scheme.”

He wasn’t the only one at the table who still thought Nome can play a role in the future of Arctic shipping.

Commissioner Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, who just recently moved back to Nome after working for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, was adamant about involving Alaska’s delegation in their efforts.

“Our state and our leaders need to get behind this port and the opportunity to support the port of Nome is now, or else it may not happen.”

And, according to City Manager Tom Moran, that might be easier than it sounds. Moran just returned from a trip to Juneau, where he attended the Alaska Municipal League conference alongside Nome’s newly appointed Mayor Richard Beneville. At this month’s city council meeting, which coincided with another burst of bad weather, Moran recapped Governor Walker’s speech at the conference.

It was a half hour speech and he mentioned three places: Anchorage, Juneau and Nome, and he mentioned Nome four times.”  So, Moran pointed out, “it’s worth noting that we do have a friend in the Governor’s office and that is the governor himself,” adding that, “he does certainly have a place in his heart for Nome.”

With the governor’s budget to be released soon, Moran urged the City Council to “keep your fingers crossed, we might see some love from the Governor.”

While schools and businesses were shut down due to the weather, Nome’s City Council plotted a way forward. It was Beneville’s second council meeting since being sworn in as Mayor, and he, too, was keeping an eye on the port’s future.

“One of the things that I would really like to see us continue to do as we move forward with the port, however it turns out to be,” Beneville said, ” is to make Nome as marine-friendly as we can.”

With the sea ice packing into the port and surrounding the city, the docks may no longer be bustling with activity, but Nome’s commissioners and councilmembers are sure to remain hard at work through the winter months.

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Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage
Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.