Little Village, Big Decision

As a relative newbie to life in Alaska I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut across the last three years with some success.  I still embrace this concept and attempt to keep it foremost in my mind as I continue to experience life in semi-rural south central Alaska.  But sometimes there are issues or situations which just beg for some analysis; recognizing such instances often leaves me wondering if I should input my ‘two cents’.  Such a situation formed the foundation for this piece.  My interest was piqued when my on-line news source summation presented me with the following story:

I was impressed to find someone from Anchorage even bothered to report on the tourist situation; normally their interests stop at Wasilla sixty plus miles to the south.  This article took, in my opinion, a fair and equitable look at the growing problems with tourism in Talkeetna.  And, for the most part, laid the blame for the situation right where I feel it belongs; upon the local population.

Anyone following this blog knows I’ve complained about the increasing numbers of tourists since I moved up here although I’ve also recognized the positive impact their dollars have on the village.  But this article brought up some impressive numbers which I feel are at the foundation of the situation.  If it is true that 300,000 tourists come through Talkeetna every year – to be accurate it’s not a full year but rather the five months from May through September – then this number is astounding especially given the number of year round residents in the Talkeetna area is 750!  That number of annual tourists is the equivalent to 40% of Alaska’s total population and figures down to 60,000 tourists a month or 15,000 per week!!  Is it any wonder the village is overwhelmed each summer by the masses of people wandering around its few blocks?

 I was particularly interested in the many potential resolutions for our tourism issues.  Incorporation will almost assuredly bring in more politics and will just as assuredly mean an increase in money we locals will have to shell out.  However, as the story highlighted, the village is getting desperate.  I’d prefer to see we work to get some very loud and prominent representation on the Mat-Su Borough’s Assembly.  Right now if you visit their website everything is about Wasilla and Palmer; I saw nothing about Talkeetna.  And that’s the real issue as noted in the article; Talkeetna has very little presence in the Borough’s collective consciousness.  There are state and federal funding’s available for a lot of the work we need done but the borough assembly often designates such monies for ‘lower valley’ projects.  This drives the thinking we should support a ‘Susitna Borough’.  This does make some sense as the Mat-Su Borough, while relatively small in area by Alaskan standards, does encompass 101,095 people which is a bit less than 14% of the state’s population.  If you figure Talkeetna has 750 year round people then we are just 0.74% of the population of the Mat-Su Borough; this highlights the fact virtually all of the population of this borough is in the Palmer-Wasilla area.  Given this it’s no surprise most of the attention and money goes to that immediate area.  But incorporation would most likely mean Talkeetna would lose even more of its ‘funky small town’ feel and without question politics would really take hold as we’d need a mayor, assembly and additional political manpower.  My question is would any benefits we’d see from incorporation over-ride the loss of our ‘unincorporated, small village feel’ and the inevitable increase in taxes and similar?  My answer at this point is a solid; “NO!”.  However, we cannot afford to just continue ‘as is’; part of the unwillingness to face these challenges in the past is what has caused us to be in this position in the first place.  And everyone living here knows darn well the tourist issues have only been growing since the mid to late 1990’s; that’s 20 years ago.

Here is another very divisive question; does everyone share in the tourist money?  I’d say without question the people living within the actual village do see some benefit; only they can tell you if those benefits outweigh the grief.  I would guess very few folks living outside the village proper feel we are getting much, if any, benefits from those tourism dollars.  There are a number of prominent business owners in this area and most do not want to see tourism decrease although many would also acknowledge something has to be done regarding the current situation.  But painting crosswalks and even adding some sidewalks will not resolve the real issues.  Talkeetna residents, and probably those in its immediate surroundings, have to decide if they favor returning to a quiet, historical village or want to go with continued expansion through increased tourism.  I, obviously, favor the former but I also know from sitting on the Upper Susitna Food Pantry (USFP) board if we went that direction our support numbers will sky-rocket as there just are not a lot of job opportunities in the Talkeetna area but there are a lot of folks too poor to even move out of this area.  Every lost job means at minimum another person on welfare and often means an entire family has to go on the dole to even survive.  All around this is not a good situation but is one we locals have to face and resolve sooner rather than later.

A number of the resolutions are just nonsense; restricting traffic in the village is a non-starter as we have no ability to enforce such regulations.  In my mind it all boils down to numbers; if we truly do see 300,000 total visitors in a given year then it is no surprise such numbers are causing many problems for the village and the immediate area.  Cramming this many people through little Talkeetna cannot help but cause serious issues even if the village was prepared and laid out to handle such throngs of ‘summer people’.  The whole sewage situation has always boggled my mind; it’s been an issue since long before I moved up here and the ‘fixes’ are not brain surgery.  But somehow it takes breaking the state’s potable water regulations or running afoul the EPA’s requirements for treated water release before anyone does anything.  Both the flood dike and the sewage issues could be fixed in a year but it will require outside monies and someone to shepherd the entire process to completion.  Previously it was politics and the borough focusing on lower valley issues that stalled any action; now it’s the state’s fiscal crisis based on oil’s floundering prices.  Sadly, the latter will put a stranglehold on making any progress because there just is no state money.  Unless something dramatic happens regarding the oil prices, as in they suddenly double if not triple, we are going to have to endure this situation, and probably see worse, for the foreseeable future.  What so many locals seem not to understand is that even if oil suddenly jumped to $100/barrel the state wouldn’t feel the positive effects for years as oil is a commodity and its price is regulated by futures contracts that often extend forward in time one or more years.

 While I have my own feelings regarding this situation I’d be the first to admit I lack the perspective of life long Talkeetnans.  But I do know this is not a situation which we can continue to ignore.  In many ways it parallels the current federal immigration issue; just look at what 35 years of ‘kicking the can down the road’ has given us!  I firmly believe we Talkeetnans must decide very soon this fundamental question; in what direction do we want the future of Talkeetna headed?  Do we want a bucolic historical village or do we want increased growth based upon expanding tourism?  This is the fundamental question we, as a community, must answer before we can move forward.  I’m sure we can work out a question or questions upon which to vote regarding this decision.  But just as assuredly I know there will be a lot of very unhappy people regarding the final decision…

Tourists In Downtown Talkeetna

A rather ‘light’ day in terms of tourists on Main Street in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

6 thoughts on “Little Village, Big Decision

  1. In Skagway we have 1,000,000 visitors a year and about 750 year-round residents. We also have 25 diamond stores and 1.5 grocery stores. Guess what? Money talks. I think there is no turning back. Unfortunately…

    • Some pretty amazing facts regarding Skagway! I knew you folks see a boatload of tourists (pun intended) every year due to the cruise ships pulling into the docks but I had no idea it was so large!! Yes, ‘money talks’ and along with it ‘BS walks’. However, I also understand if Talkeetna lost the tourists dollars we’d probably lose some gains made regarding educational infrastructure, sewage treatment and, of course, it would mean an even poorer local population with the loss of tourism based jobs. However, said jobs are strictly summer employment which is part of the reason so many locals head to the lower 48 after September only to return in April to May. Those who cannot do so generally end up struggling to make it through the winter. I’d like to think perhaps there is a reasonable balance we, as a community, could embrace but perhaps I’m just being too optimistic. I only know I am sad when I see what happens in Talkeetna come May; it only reinforces the reason the ‘Take Back Our Town’ party in late October to November even exists…

      • Let’s hope there are enough voices of reason and moderation to maintain or regain Talkeetna’s charm.
        Good luck!

        • I certainly hope this will be the case but I cannot help but sense there are some definite ‘lines’ drawn regarding this issue and the creators of said divisions are pretty firmly encamped. This, of course, makes the possibility of compromise less and even dims the potential for holding a civilized dialog. I do know that if Talkeetna decides to continue to grow tourism I will seriously look at moving further north probably up to the Fairbanks area. That’s saying quite a bit as I intended to live out my final years in this immediate territory…

  2. I’ve never been to Talkeetna. In some respects, tourism can keep communities going. But not always. What other resources are available?

    • Hi Angela! I love your blog as it continues to remind me of the real value in maintaining local traditions and the importance of understanding and remembering one’s roots. Regarding your query; Talkeetna is a rather eclectic community and the locals are known for a sense of humor most Alaskans would find a bit eccentric. The town itself was born into history originally as a main stop for the Alaska Railroad and then developed some lumber industry and became a bit more of a way station for folks heading further north; more recently it has become a tourism stop-over for people headed to and from Denali National Park & Preserve and points north. Sadly almost all the jobs available in the area are tied to tourism and hence seasonal. A few folks run hunting and fishing guide services and there is a large amount of aviation based tourism involving flight-seeing trips along the eastern side of the Alaska Range; in addition during Denali’s climbing season – mainly from May through early June – the village is loaded with climbers and the air services provide the needed transportation and support. But really that is about it for employment opportunities. I’d guess that maybe 80% of the jobs in the village and surroundings are seasonal due to being tied to tourism. I know from sitting on the board of the ‘Upper Susitna Food Pantry’ (USFP) that our support numbers will soon begin to increase and really growth until April when the tourist jobs begin to reappear. I’d also guess maybe 10% of the locals head south to the lower 48 starting in mid-September; almost all do so based upon jobs being discontinued for another winter. I also know from volunteering at the local NPR station (KTNA) come September it becomes much more difficult to find ‘fill in’ people for local radio shows based upon the aforementioned southern ‘migration’. The community has some very basic services like schools, a post office, basic auto/aircraft repair, schools, the aforementioned local NPR outlet, water and sewage treatment for the actual village and similar but that’s about it. A huge plus for the community was the opening of a small grocery (Cubby’s) at ‘the Y’ which is the intersection of the Parks Highway and the Spur road maybe five years back. The ‘downtown’ area has a number of historic buildings like ‘The Fairview Inn’ which draw many folks year round. I believe most locals would support ongoing tourism but not in the current numbers and especially as said numbers have only continued to increase with each passing year. The village could do more to mitigate some of the tourism based issues but ultimately I see the problem as simply numbers; 300,000 tourist visiting one small village mainly across a five month period means we see a true crush of tourists. Most locals I know shun the village during tourist season; it is just too crowded. As I mentioned in my blog Talkeetna is far enough distant from Wasilla and Palmer that it just isn’t someplace the Mat-Su Borough Assembly thinks of when state and federal monies become available. Given we’re just 0.74% of the Mat-Su Borough’s total population this isn’t a surprise. I hope the village decides soon on its direction; I’d love to see it embrace a modified tourism plan which decreases the total numbers of incoming folks and puts in some basic improvements to handle the number of tourists. I truly love the ‘small town’ feel of Talkeetna from October through April. Sadly, if the village wants to pursue continued growth tourism is really the only way to make this both happen and be sustainable. If this does increase I think I’ll be looking to sell my home and move further north.

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