JUNEAU — Fairbanks groups lined up Wednesday asking the state to market Alaska as a “destination” for tourists through subsidized advertising.
The Alaska Legislature is poised to send the program far less than the $16 million approved last year.
But the visitor industry said this is no time to ease off the gas as businesses recover from a string of difficult years.
“We’re just starting to come out of it,” said Buzzy Chiu, who runs the Bridgewater Hotel, of the economic recovery’s impact in Fairbanks. “So please don’t place another burden on those in the tourism industry.”
Chiu and others spoke by phone to three members of the House Finance Committee, which was in its second day of hearings on Gov. Sean Parnell’s $11 billion annual spending plan. Half the Legislature, and much of the committee, was on break to attend an East Coast energy conference.
The state beefed up contributions to tourism marketing three years ago following voters’ 2006 decision to impose new taxes on the cruise industry. But the Legislature trimmed that head tax last year, and the state’s help is now set to drop to levels seen before the change — generally a dollar-for-dollar match as industry groups pay taxes to help market Alaska as a destination.
Ryan Binkley, president of the Riverboat Discovery, said his company is seeing stronger interest from prospective visitors after two bleak years of sales. He said a switch to previous spending levels would make it “impossible to market Alaska” outside the state’s borders.
Deb Hickok, president of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the change would leave her industry facing an unattainable bar if it hopes to see advertising mirror recent years’ levels. Kory Eberhardt, owner of A Taste of Alaska Lodge, said he grew concerned with the expected change after facing a $9,000 bill for magazine advertising. Scott Reisland, who owns Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, said he had to cut 24 seasonal jobs — half his summer payroll — after business declined and is only starting to see a recovery.
Lloyd Huskey, involved with visitors bureaus and the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said “there needs to be a continued investment in the tourism marketing of Alaska.”
The committee, normally consisting of 11 members, had slim attendance Wednesday — Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, and two other members attended, as did Rep. Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks, and aides for other Interior lawmakers. Guttenberg said during a break, responding to a reporter’s question about the value of lawmakers’ attendance at the energy conference during a legislative session, that the East Coast event is a chance to tell the world more about Alaska’s potential as an energy-producing state.
Public education officials called for more school funding and backed early childhood development programs.
The comments follow Parnell’s proposal to flat fund per-pupil education spending. Pete Lewis, Fairbanks’ schools superintendent, asked committee members to increase state aid enough to cover inflation and rising energy costs facing the school district. Lewis also asked the committee to restore a handful of cuts made by a subcommittee, including support for statewide teacher mentoring programs and autism research.
Leslie Hadjukovich, a member of the school board in Fairbanks, said even a marginal increase in the per-pupil base student allocation funding formula would help as schools try to improve graduation rates.
Education leaders also asked the committee to back the Best Beginnings program. The request comes as the Legislature considers an end to a pilot, two-year, state-run pre-kindergarten project. Local officials called Best Beginnings a solid alternative.
“You don’t have to grow government or expand the public school system to do the right thing for young children,” said Sue Hull, a member of the Fairbanks and the state’s school boards.
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins backed the program as well, saying its flexibility is appropriate for Alaska’s needs.
Social service grants
Hopkins also asked the representatives to support the Human Services Community Matching Grants program.
The program steers state aid toward Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley to help fund social service nonprofits. Those three communities match part of that money, a match administrators have called a great deal. It is set to shrink after a boost last year and Hopkins noted the U.S. Census Bureau has recognized Fairbanks is bigger than previously thought, something he said bolsters justification to, at the least, fund things at current levels.
Taber Rehbaum, speaking for the Arctic Alliance for People, said the grant program leverages exponentially more in value for social services in Fairbanks than it costs. Those “results-based” services, she said, reduce the demand for direct state-administered social services.
“If you really want to keep the cost of government down, this is a way to do it,” she said.
Contact staff writer Christopher Eshleman at 459-7582