I love spring in Fairbanks. Soon, it will be summer, and we will be able to enjoy sourdough pancakes, parades, duck tape boats and rubber duckies floating down the Chena. This also is a wonderful time to remember the good old days. I wasn’t around during the first gold rush (thank goodness, or I’d be dead now), but I do remember Fairbanks just before the pipeline boom. I was busy getting rich at $4 an hour as a hotel night auditor and University of Alaska Fairbanks student that I never thought about what business would be like in Fairbanks just 45 years later circa April 2019. Had you and I thought about and been able to then forecast the future of our local business environment, we would probably both be richly retired today.
Remember the early ’70s? We had Piggly Wiggly grocery, which then became Market Basket, which later became SuperValue, which then went out of business and is now a nearly vacant building. Back in the ’70s, shopping was all downtown. Remember NC, now the Key Bank parking lot? How about Safeway, which is now the downtown post office? Woolworth’s is now an office and JC Penny is now a furniture store with laser tag.
Hello Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Costco — where did Sears, Lamonts, Kmart and others go?
Shopping prior to the pipeline boom was, as Petula Clark sang, “Downtown.” You could shop on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and until noon on Saturday. Everything was closed on Sundays. Geist Road and Airport Way were two lane dirt/gravel roads and there was nothing but forest from the airport to the little airport road store. In 1974, I wanted to buy my brand new wife an ironing board and cookie jar. There wasn’t one to be had in Fairbanks! I thought about opening a cookie jar store, but someone beat me to it. Remember the good old days?
Then we got a pipeline, and by the 1980s we enjoyed malls. In addition to Gavora’s we got Bentley Mall, Shopper’s Forum Mall, University Center Mall, and a bunch of strip malls. Happy days. There were a lot of prospering small businesses in the malls of our Golden Heart City until the oil crash of 1985. Then there weren’t a lot of prospering businesses. I wish that in 1985 you and I had peered into the future to see the Fairbanks of 2019. Again, if had, and planned correctly, we’d both be richly retired today.
Well, we may have missed the boat during the last boom to look into the future and position ourselves for the coming era of local prosperity, but we don’t have to miss out on the future. To catch the next golden wave requires good planning and positioning and not bad nonplanning. Of the two types of bad nonplanners, the first is a Harvard MBA type who crunches numbers, looks into the financial tea leaves and acts solely on the financial forecast. The other nonplanner is the one who goes by the “gut” and “shoots from the hip.” In order for you and me to truly take advantage of the coming era of change we must get good at asking seemingly dumb questions. Albert Einstein is quoted to have said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
I confess that I don’t have a crystal ball that can show our future, but I do have some pretty fair dumb questions. In the past, trends began in California and New York, then spread inland to the plains and eventually came north to Alaska. Will that pattern continue? If so, will the time lag continue to contract? Shopping has relentlessly marched closer to the home, from downtown to the west, now to the north. What does the future hold and how will the internet and social media affect local commerce?
Baby boomers have driven the economy for 50-plus years, from coon skin hats to yo-yos, hula hoops and fitness clubs. What will happen to our economy in the next few years as millions of us retire and the millennial generation takes over?
I wish I had the answers, but all I have are dumb questions. I challenge you to get your team thinking about and asking dumb but thought provoking questions about the future. The reward for doing this correctly is becoming richly retired, sooner rather than later, and looking back to spring 2019 as being the beginning of the next “good ol’ days” of entrepreneurial opportunity.
Charle Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus. He may be reached by email at email@example.com. This column is provided as a public service by the UAF Community and Technical Colleges.