An alternative view on economic growth

While it was instructive to read our mayor declare in these pages that Homer is open for business, the descriptive comments made by our town’s putative leader as to our economic future left this reader with many concerns. 

To start with, it seems clear that the mayor has not read, much less reflected on, the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, or CEDS, issued by the Homer Economic Development Advisory Commission in February 2011. Otherwise, the picture and emphases she described may have been considerably different. It also appears that the mayor has little more than a superficial understanding of the economic driving forces and demographics of this community or of rapidly changing future trends.

The mayor puts much of the economic future of Homer in a few baskets, namely oil and gas development, harbor-related activity and tourism. Nothing too surprising or revelatory about that. If the past is indeed prologue, then we could take some comfort in this picture. 

Unfortunately, our past, by most current measures, is on the brink of significant disruptive change. Fisheries in Alaska, as in much of the world’s oceans, appear to be undergoing worrisome and unanticipated changes. Changes that likely portend negative trends for Homer. Regardless of one’s position on fossil fuel dependence, the inexorable truth is that once plentiful sources are in remission and will only become more difficult, environmentally and financially, to find and extract.

Perhaps most significant, as a local trend, is the changing demographic of our community. Homer is aging. Not only is the current resident boomer population aging, but Homer is becoming a not so well kept secret retirement destination. What is the implication of this trend in the mayor’s economic forecast and strategy? How does this factor into the overall future economic landscape of Homer?

Particularly troubling is the mayor’s silence on Homer’s largest economic determinant: the non-profit sector. Yes that’s right, everyone’s favorite whipping boy or so it would seem from a prevalent attitude among many. Here are the facts: Eight of the 10 largest employers in our community non-profits. In 2011, Homer based non-profit organizations had expenditures of $164.4 million (data collected from 2011 IRS Form 990 required from all non-profits). 

Ignoring South Peninsula Hospital, HEA and its subsidiary Alaska Electric and Energy Cooperative, the collection of smaller non-profit organizations still spent $20.8 million, largely in the Homer economy. 

What is it that these organizations contribute to our community besides this hefty chunk of dollars? Jobs for one thing. Lots of jobs. They also educate and care for our children, protect our cherished bay and ocean waters, preserve our public lands, preserve and display our shared history and culture, groom our ski trails and maintain recreational venues, provide an endless array of cultural events to entertain, enrich and lift our spirits, care for our aging parents and grandparents, treat our mentally ill, shelter and feed our less fortunate,  beautify our shared living space, nurture our small businesses, and … well, you get the idea. In what possible discussion of our economic future can you ignore this?

If there is one portion of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy that I would recommend that the mayor (along with the rest of the Homer City Council) read and take to heart, it is “Arts and The Creative Class” beginning on page 21. 

Google “Arts Economic Impact” and more than 100,000 results will appear. Included are dozens of reports by states, counties, cities, both large and small, extolling the positive impact that supporting arts and culture has had on their community’s economic growth and well being. The CEDS fully recognized this factor when it pointed out that “the creative class” refers to certain scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and architects, and people in design, education, arts, music, and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and/or creative content and that the arts help create the type of environment that in turn attracts other creative people, including those in the highly desirable, knowledge-based (“new economy”) industries. 

The CEDS makes the following recommendations:

A. Work to enhance and protect the quality of life factors that make Homer attractive to artists and other creative people. See previous discussion of quality of life. 

B. Support public art above and beyond the existing 1 percent for the arts ordinance. 

    1. Commission public art for existing parks, buildings, streets/sidewalks and other facilities. 

   2. Encourage artists to create public art by providing spaces, permanent and temporary, for art installations and music/performance art events. 

C. Publicly recognize the value of art in our lives and in our community. 

D. Support arts education in the public schools and elsewhere. 

E. Partner with local arts organizations and businesses to promote art in the community.

As a new board member of a Homer arts organization, I am appalled at the lack of local government support for the arts and culture. Arts organizations are on a permanent fundraising treadmill that consumes a huge portion of their resources and time. Yet the potential economic benefit to the future of our community is enormous and deserves much more serious discussion and consideration.

Jack Oudiz writes that he is “a Homer resident who is investing his retirement years in the future of his adopted home town.”