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Anchorage's 'fat factor' belies 'Live. Work. Play.' motto

The head of Anchorage Economic Development Corp. said Wednesday that high rates of obesity in the city (seen here from the air on April 25, 2012) are hurting Anchorage's rankings in terms of livability compared to other cities. Loren Holmes photo

Anchorage residents don’t seem to be following the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.’s slogan for the city -- "Live. Work. Play." -- to the letter.

Obesity is weighing down Anchorage’s standing in an annual assessment of livability that compares 51 cities nationwide, according to Bill Popp, president and CEO of AEDC.

“The fat factor” is a key reason Anchorage slid in the rankings this year, said Popp.

“They caught us eating those Twinkies,” said Popp, referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey that found Anchorage considers itself to be less healthy than previously thought.  

The news came on Wednesday as Popp unveiled a trifecta of reports: the 2014 Anchorage economic forecast, a business confidence index, and the Live. Work. Play. rankings.

On the plus side, the Anchorage economy is expected to add some 1,200 new jobs in the coming year, a slight increase from the 1,000 added last year.

Popp noted that if December estimates hold true, Anchorage is on track to finish with 4.8 percent unemployment in 2013, the lowest rate since 2001.

“It’s not just full employment,” he said. The city may even be overemployed.

Employment is so tight in Anchorage that businesses are having difficulty attracting workers, he said. The strong numbers are common throughout Southcentral Alaska.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is expected to finish 2013 with 7.1 percent unemployment, the lowest since 2000. The Kenai Peninsula is expected to clock in at 7.4 percent unemployment, the best year in nearly a quarter century, said Popp.

Fueling part of the growth is work in the oil and gas patch in Cook Inlet and on the North Slope, which has risen steadily in recent years. If December estimates hold true, the number of workers in the oil industry in Alaska will exceed 15,000 for the first time, he said.

Not everything was rosy in 2013. AEDC had predicted Anchorage would grow by 1,700 jobs last year, so the 1,000 jobs that were actually added fell short of that number. Weighing down growth was the loss of 900 positions that were cut in the public sector, with about 450 losses coming in education and another 450 in federal government.   

“We were surprised by the growth and pace of job loss, particularly on the federal side,” said Popp.

2014 could come with curveballs, too. The Anchorage School District has announced it will cut hundreds of positions. But state lawmakers are expected to discuss increasing per-pupil funding for the first time in four years, possibly eliminating the need for such drastic reductions.

According to estimates, strong areas of job growth in Anchorage should include:

• Oil and gas, with some 150 new positions forecast.

• Health care, with 350 new jobs forecast.

• Business and professional services -- such as accountants, permitters and lawyers -- is estimated to grow by about 200 positions, with the huge capital budgets passed by the Legislature in recent years helping buoy the hiring.

• Retail trade is expected to add 250 new jobs. Large retail stores, such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops, are expected to open this year and will need up to 1,000 new workers. But some retailers are expected to get squeezed by the new competition and may be forced to cut back, cutting into the gains. Also, with employment already tight, employers might not be able to find all the workers they need, said Popp.

As for the Live. Work. Play. assessment, Anchorage experienced the smallest loss in the Work category, falling to fifth place from third in part because other cities are experiencing improvements as the nation’s economy comes back to life. The “Work” category takes into account things like wages and commuting time.

AEDC launched the initiative four years ago,with the goal of making Anchorage tops in those three categories by 2025, using self-selected categories and data culled from nationwide studies.

But Anchorage’s weight problem caused the city to drop from eighth to 16th in the “Live” category, said Popp. That’s primarily because the CDC improved its sampling of health behaviors in Anchorage, leading to a drop in the number of Anchorage residents who report their health as “good” or “better.” As a result, Anchorage fell from first place to 25th place.    

Anchorage also fell from 12th to 14th in the “Play” category, again in part because the Centers for Disease Control improved its sampling. The agency found that more Anchorage residents consider themselves overweight or obese than had been previously reported, dropping Anchorage from 45th place to 48th.

“We were dinged again by the fat factor,” said Popp, who calls himself “severely overweight” but said he’s recently gotten a Fitbit, an activity-tracking device that jingles when he’s walked 10,000 steps, something he accomplished on Wednesday.

“I’m taking serious steps toward fixing the (weight) problem,” he said. “I’ve got to keep up with my grandson.”  

AEDC is also taking action. It’s recently begun bringing together small business owners and health care and insurance officials to come up with strategies for companies to make their workplaces healthier, he said.

The efforts involve things like improving lunch options, eliminating soft drinks from snack rooms, or encouraging employees to walk during breaks.

“The benefits are more energetic employees with fewer health problems and lower health care costs to the community and companies,” said Popp. “And there’s obviously a benefit to the Live. Work. Play. initiative.”

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.