Hometown U: When oil and government checks are gone, look to the university

Kathleen McCoy
Philip Hall/University of Alaska

A conversation I had the other week sticks in my head. A good friend, born and raised here and schooled at a university in Washington state, said he has a new fear: After the oil and government money are all gone, Anchorage will dry up and blow away. People who used those dollars to grow this town and state will be on the first plane out.

It shocked me because my friend is not a pessimist. He's a clear and fair thinker who spent his professional life in Anchorage even though he had lots of opportunities to take his talent elsewhere. He is not an exploiter.

Right behind that conversation are other, quieter ones over potlucks at friends' houses.

"Should we think about selling our house now, before the market tanks?"

All of it signals a lack of confidence that Alaska can make the transition from oil and government money to something else that can also be prosperous. We have evidence for our tremors; a fish processing plant that ended up as a church is just one of them.

I write a fair amount about intellectual property and entrepreneurial new ideas coming out of engineering, science and humanities here at UAA. But I didn't realize the university had another entity aimed at developing and diversifying Alaska's economy. Given our inevitable future as a post-oil state, readers might be interested in finding out what the UAA Business Enterprise Institute's ambitions are and who runs it.

Christi Bell, who describes herself as a "private sector development consultant who just happens to work at a university," is its new executive director. She sold her own business development firm, Aurora Consulting, before being tapped to lead the UA Center for Economic Development in 2005. That unit, along with others that focus on minority and small-business development and consult with cities and tribes, were recently organized under the BEI umbrella for efficiency and effectiveness, Bell said.

The University of Alaska is one of 60 U.S. Economic Development Administration "university centers" around the country. That designation is highly sought after, Bell said, because it signals a trusted partnership between the federal government and academia to apply university resources toward economic growth. As Bell likes to say, "I may be one person but I've got 2,000 (academic) experts behind me."

The BEI operates out of UAA only because Anchorage is the state's largest commercial center. However, its functions, like training small-business leaders or expanding the education of executives, consulting with tribes and cities on their own enterprises, or even launching Lemonade Day to get youngsters thinking about entrepreneurialism by running their own fruit drink stands, are all statewide functions.

So what does all this have to do with my friend's nightmare that Anchorage might dry up and blow away after oil runs out?

As it turns out, that concern is widespread. Bell shared the 2010 "Alaska Forward" report by business development consultants IHS Global Insight. The analysis took Alaska's economic development temperature. It also demonstrated how other states or countries have successfully overcome challenges that Alaska faces today. They looked at places like North Carolina, which leveraged academia to enhance industry; Austin, Texas, which had to figure out how to add value to existing industries; and even Chile, which experiences the same geographic isolation as Alaska does.

Besides calling Alaska's economy stagnant for the last 20 years, the report also called our economic future "cloudy" and said we needed to move beyond thinking of ourselves as a natural resources economy to "a natural resources, PLUS" economy.

Meaning while we're still exploiting natural resources, we need to simultaneously develop promising emerging sectors like logistics, specialized machinery and advanced business services. An entrepreneur and academic at UAA, Bear Baker, can even imagine a pharmaceuticals industry here, thanks to our clean water and gas supplies.

"That's all you need," he said.

Baker is UAA's provost and a huge supporter of the BEI initiatives. He arrived in Alaska with his parents when he was just 4 years old and says our economy today is about the same as when he arrived, except for its size.

"We sucked it out of the ground, we pulled it out of the ocean, we cut down trees and we took federal dollars. That was it. And that's what we still do."

He was getting his doctorate at Clemson University in South Carolina when all that state's textile industries moved offshore.

"Our economy went to hell in a hand basket," he said. "The Legislature turned to the university system and said, 'You people will go build an industry for us.' You couldn't hurt South Carolina today if you tried, their industry is so diversified. And that's only been 40 years."

He sees that potential here, once Alaskans are ready to move past their oil and government money hangovers. Both he and Bell say Alaska Native corporations are leading the way, tapping an innate resilience and confidence in moving quickly to globally diversify their business models.

These conversations reminded me of what another friend, an Alaska Native who mentors students at UAA, said to me recently. "Invest in us," he said. "We aren't leaving."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U