Last week, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation gave Southcentral residents and business owners some news Alaskans have been hoping for since oil prices collapsed in late 2014 and a recession began a year later: An economic uptick appears to be in sight for the state's biggest city.
Word that Anchorage — and potentially the rest of the state — is forecast to emerge from recession early next year isn't entirely unexpected. Signs have been pointing to the state reaching an economic bottom for some time. Oil prices, which hit lows in early 2016 at below $30 per barrel, have climbed back above $75 per barrel this week. In 2017, Anchorage lost 2,200 jobs, but each quarter saw fewer losses than the last. This year, AEDC forecasts losses will be less than half as severe. In 2019, the group forecasts flat employment, with a return to modest job growth in 2020 and 2021.
Presuming the bullish forecast bears fruit, it couldn't come at a better time for the municipality. Anchorage has done its best to weather the recession while dealing with a storm of related issues: a massive increase in property crime, an opioid epidemic, an increasingly visible population of residents who are homeless, and widespread cuts to state services such as behavioral health and public safety. It hasn't been easy for residents of all stripes to manage during the economic recession, as proven by population statistics that show annual declines in Anchorage's population from 2014 to the present. For a city that has been growing steadily and continually for the century since it was founded, the past half-decade of stagnation was a shock to the system.
But we shouldn't fall into the trap of believing that the problems revealed in stark contrast during the recession will be fixed when it ends. The economic downturn only revealed issues that have been lurking beneath the surface for years, even decades in some cases, but from which much of the city's population had previously been insulated.
Now, the magnitude of the issues we face as a community has been made more plain, and with the recession's end potentially in sight, we may soon have more economic flexibility to tackle them with greater resources. Now is not the time for the municipality or any of the stakeholder groups doing hard work to tackle Anchorage's issues to ease up in their efforts; on the contrary, their work may become more rewarding as the economy becomes a potential aid rather than a drag on progress.
We also shouldn't let an economic turnaround distract from structural issues with revenue at the state level. The recession laid bare the danger of Alaska's dependence on oil receipts for the revenue needed to provide state services. Even as oil prices continue to recover, there's no excuse for legislators and the governor to resume a policy of overspending during boom years and making panicked cuts when prices dive. Alaska needs a stable base on which to grow its economy in years to come. That means economic diversification, growth and a more reliable stream of funds. Alaskans, businesses and leaders have done work to fulfill each of those goals, but more still is required for Alaska to have a sound footing.
Should Anchorage's economy emerge from recession next year as predicted, it will begin a new chapter for the city, but the municipality and the state will still have plenty of work to do. Charting a stable course for the years to come will be a job as vital as ever, and it will take hard work on the part of every Anchorage resident.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.