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…