SUN AND SNOW – Snow evaporates off the roof of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Thursday. More late season snow mixed with rain  is in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday. Sunny weather is in the forecast for the first part of next week. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

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Daily Sitka Sentinel

Economy Task Force Sees Hope for Sitka

By ARIADNE WILL
Special to the Sentinel

Members of the Sitka Economic Resiliency Task Force discussed the good news and the not-so-good news Tuesday at their regular weekly meeting.

The task force, which represents a range of Sitka business, social and special interest groups, has been meeting weekly since April 21 to work on ways to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on Sitka’s economy.

In her report to the group on Tuesday, Shauna Thornton, representing banking, and Fran Schwuchow, the workforce support representative, suggested that Sitka is doing better than it was at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schwuchow, who works at Sitka Job Center, said she’s trying to have a positive outlook despite the absence of seasonal work.

“It looks like things are starting to pick back up a little bit,” she said.

Sitka’s unemployment rate reached 13% in early April, which is below national and state averages, Schwuchow said. Alaska cities such as Haines and Skagway have seen unemployment rates surge as tourism-based jobs have fallen through, she said.

Thornton, who is branch manager at First National Bank Alaska, said people are still spending money.

“I’m seeing more applications for new items to purchase than in the last little while that I’ve been here,” she said. 

She added that travel rentals and vacation bookings are “heavily booked” and will be filled as soon as travel mandates are lifted.

“I think that as the mandates are lifted and people start arriving, we’ll see some of our unemployed folks going back to work,” she said.

Thornton said that as it is, people are continuing to pay their mortgages and that landlords are being understanding when renters are unable to make rent.

“I think people are trying to help each other,” she said.

Keith Perkins, who is involved in the single family housing loan program, said the program is busy despite economic drawbacks.

Perkins, representing USDA Rural Development, reported that the program is as busy as it has been in the last three years. Several families are approved or close to being approved and will soon be shopping for a home, he told the task force Tuesday.

The task force is led by Garry White, director of the Sitka Economic Development Association, and holds its meetings over the Zoom videoconferencing platform. During the hourly meetings White gives each member time to report on their sector. This includes reports from meetings members may have held with people in their sector.

In addition to White, Thornton, Schwuchow and Perkins, Tuesday’s Economic Resilience Task Force meeting was attended by Robin Sherman (nonprofits), Cora Dow (youth), Camille Ferguson (tribal economic development), Jay Sweeney (City and Borough of Sitka), John Holst (education) and Dirk White (White’s Pharmacy).

The subject of how the city will use its share of federal CARES Act funding was again discussed.

On that issue, there is overlap between the economic resiliency group and the “working group” the Assembly has set up to recommend uses of the $14 million the city will receive from the CARES Act program. The Assembly will make the final decisions.

In their Tuesday discussion, members of the Economic Resiliency Task Force suggested having the CARES Act used to hire more public safety first responders.

Task force members also expressed interest in forming a pool of money to help small businesses and nonprofits, which includes community services like childcare.

Independent of the task force, the Assembly is already in the process of committing $4.5 million of CARES Act funds for subsidies on Sitkans’ utility and moorage bills.

Sweeney said the city working group, of which he is also a member, has discussed using CARES Act to mitigate economic strain on city finances.

“We’re due to lose a substantial amount of revenue,” he said, in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. One reason for the loss is the sales tax lost from a curtailed tourist season. Another is the loss of school bond debt reimbursement from the state.

“We’re poised to lose another $3 million from the State of Alaska,” Sweeney said.

Robin Sherman said Sitka’s nonprofit sector will be able to help the town recover from the pandemic downturn in the economy. 

She said the more than two dozen nonprofits she meets with are eager to help with Sitka’s current – and difficult – economic situation.

“Nonprofits shared challenges they’re facing, shared their contribution to the local economy and now they’re going to help the whole community recover,” she said.

The task force also acknowledged the connection between nonprofits and small businesses, which provide financial support to local nonprofits.

“I get nervous about small businesses because they really have been givers,” said Perkins. 

Perkins said the closures of small businesses affect Sitka “across the board.” He said he believes Sitka is resilient, but that the city will need to find creative ways to support small businesses.

“I already know of three businesses who have folded up their tents and said, ‘We’re done,’” Perkins told the task force.

Keeping money in the community was also a topic discussed at the Tuesday meeting.

Camille Ferguson, manager of Sitka Tribal Enterprises, spoke of CARES Act money that has been allocated to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and to Sitka Tribal Enterprises.

“A lot of that money will be staying in the community of Sitka and will be filtered through the community, so that’s good news,” Ferguson said.

She said she and STA manager Lisa Gassman, another member of the task force, talked about making grants to nonprofits and Native-owned businesses.

Ferguson said she also wants to explore ideas such as a commercial garden, which would keep money in the local economy and would minimize food costs for people purchasing locally grown produce. 

More information about SERTF can be found at sitka.net/sitka-economic-resilience-task-force.

 

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20 YEARS AGO

April 2004

Photo caption: Grace Larson holds one of the Easter breads she baked for sale at the annual Rainy Day Bazaar Saturday at Centennial Hall. Hundreds turned out for the event, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Spouses and Women’s Association.

50 YEARS AGO

April 1974

All youngsters from walking age on up to age 12 are invited to an Easter egg hunt Sunday. Ages 5 and under meet at the Centennial Building; ages 6-9 in front of the visitor center at Totem Park; and ages 10-12 at Totem Park. Some $150 in cash and merchandise prizes will be offered.

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