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Open Letter to Governor Palin: Tongass Coast Aquarium/ Oceans Alaska
By David G. Hanger


April 04, 2007
Wednesday PM

P.O. Box 110001
Juneau, Alaska 99811-0001

Dear Governor Palin:

I would like to take a few moments of your time to discuss the Tongass Coast Aquarium, a $42 million project substantially and essentially funded by the Alaska State Legislature. Let me start the discussion by observing that the original concept of an aquarium in Ketchikan enjoyed wide support by everyone from the borough's school kids to our cherished pioneers. Over the years the original dream and design has changed. It is scarcely recognizable today as the economic development project folks once dreamed of and supported.

It is now called Oceans Alaska, a recent name change from the Tongass Coast Aquarium, and this transmutation aptly reflects the fact it is a stretch to call this thing an aquarium. There is a small fish tank included in the package, but its corpus is really nothing more than a static display of artwork, and that has been lampooned by disappointed folks who once supported this project as the "Aquarium of Dead Fish." It is not in any sense an aquarium, and it is an even greater stretch to imagine that its primary purpose is research or education. Sadly, it more closely resembles a scheme to land 42 million taxpayer dollars to directly compete with the little shops and businesses whose income and livelihoods have been hard won in a fiercely competitive Ketchikan tourism industry.

This $42 million project is just another tourist ride. The promoters of this project actually acknowledged that their intent was to "capture the revenues" of the tourist industry to finance their operation. What they failed to emphasize is that THEIR tourist ride intends to promptly deprive the rest of the industry of 20% or more of the available trade. The cost benefit these folks have sold with this project takes thousands of tourists and lord knows how many millions of dollars out of the shops and offices of small businesses struggling for survival and loads them on buses to THEIR taxpayer bought and paid for destination.

We are told this will be offset by the creation of 38 direct jobs and 102 indirect jobs. There is no job creation going on here. At best this will put people out of business down the street and take over those persons' job or jobs. Favoring one vendor with massive government subsidies to compete against private sector vendors for their revenues and their jobs is contrary to the very principles of free enterprise and fair competition. These people need 136,000 tourists just to break even; that's about 20% of the market. Twelve hundred tourists a day, at least 30 busloads of tourists these people take away from the private sector every day, just to break even. They do not want to stop there, of course.

Perhaps more troubling in the short term is the disappointment this project's once strongest supporters feel for the way this is and has been handled.

Questions about the dynamics of this project are met with empty replies. Why has the private industry support for this dried up and blown away? The private-sector matching dollars proposal seems to have died without a public burial. Queries as to the financial assumptions and conclusions are met with open mouths and blank stares. It has degraded to the point where the only response that the project's champions can muster is to sling mud at those whose legitimate questions they choose not to answer.

I would request that at least one of the following proposals be successfully concluded before one more dime is shelled out for this project by the state government:

A: Require a borough wide vote to approve or disapprove the project. For very few dollars the public can be heard and more importantly the resulting debate and discussion would be in the best interest of all involved. The project's developers have intentionally done everything in their power to avoid this being referred to the voters as it should have been in the first place.
B: Require at least a 35% match by local industry, local private community organizations, or local individuals. This is the ultimate litmus test for these kinds of endeavors. Nothing demonstrates support quite like having it come out of your own pocket. This project uses government money to deprive the largest private sector industry in Ketchikan of much of its revenue stream for the benefit of a small, selected group who think they have a better way (for themselves certainly). Let's see if the rest of the private sector agrees with them.

C: Require an impartial Cost Benefit Study by an independent set of experts whose complete analysis and evaluation would be publicly available via the internet and local news outlets. The only vetting this project has received is a power point presentation to certain members of the Alaska state legislature by the project coordinator, clearly not an objective individual relative to this project.

Forty-two million government dollars should not be handed out in the darkness anymore than it should be handed out in a dark alley. A little due diligence, public involvement and public approval is not a lot to ask before spending $42 million. Shedding light on this project before the money is spent will demonstrate clearly how poorly conceived this current project is, and will allow us all the opportunity to correct these deficiencies and insure an adequate public purpose for such a massive expenditure from the public purse.


David G. Hanger
Ketchikan, AK

Received April 03, 2007 - Published April 04, 2007




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