The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) has the potential to be a true road map that brings together many voices from your region to form a common vision for economic prosperity and resilience. Through the CEDS Spotlight case studies series, the NADO Research Foundation is highlighting best practices and innovative elements of CEDS planning, development, and implementation from EDDs and other regional development organizations across the country.
Southeast Alaska is a region of stunning natural beauty and strong, self-reliant residents who have faced a boom and bust economy over many decades. It is no surprise then that the region’s current CEDS “Southeast Alaska 2020” is one of the best examples in the country of infusing resilience into the CEDS planning process and final document. Developed by Southeast Conference, the region’s Economic Development District, Southeast Alaska 2020 is a case study in effective CEDS planning, public engagement, and design. Southeast Conference serves 34 communities that cover 500 miles of the Southeast Alaska Panhandle which includes over 1,000 islands and 18,500 miles of coastline. The region’s population is around 74,000, a quarter of which are indigenous Native Alaskans.
Southeast Conference prepared its first CEDS in 2000, though for years the document was viewed more as a project wish list for the region and not something that was really driving a conversation about the future of the region. “It was extremely refreshing when the new EDA Content Guidelines were released [in 2015],” says Meilani Schijvens, Southeast Conference’s Economic Development Director. “With the guidelines we saw an opportunity to develop a really useful tool, not just for us as the Economic Development District, but for the region as a whole. We re-branded to let people know this was going to a different kind of economic planning process.”
Doing a different kind of planning process meant two keys things: taking time with crafting the plan and being extremely inclusive to make sure as many voices as possible were included. The CEDS was more than a year in the making, with multiple opportunities for public engagement, both in-person and online. Over 400 members were part of the process, lending their local knowledge, expertise, and insight into the plan. “We took the time to really access the deep intellect of our region’s people,” says Schijvens. “The region has the answers to the challenges we are facing.”
This was particularly evident in both the SWOT process and a Resiliency Mapping exercise, an additional effort conducted as part of their CEDS. The SWOT was conducted by Southeast Conference at its 2015 Mid-Session Summit, bringing together almost 200 stakeholders from a variety of sectors to perform a SWOT analysis both for the region as a whole as well as for specific industry sectors, including transportation, energy, maritime, and tourism. 1,300 hand written comments were collected through this process and helped spark a region-wide discussion about the status of Southeast Alaska. Following extensive review and organizing the comments, Southeast Conference staff articulated the final SWOT chart that is found in the CEDS, as well as a more detailed analysis that is included as an appendix available on the website. Respondents overwhelmingly identified the region’s biggest strength in its people and spirit, the biggest weakness in the cost of transportation, the biggest opportunity in seafood industry, and the biggest threat in the impact of federal regulations.
A year later at the 2016 Mid-Session Summit, a Resiliency Mapping exercise was conducted to address the challenges of an uncertain economic future. The state of Alaska faces a $4 billion budget gap, caused in large part by the precipitous drop in oil prices, which at one time provided 90% of Alaska’s unrestricted revenues. Southeast Alaska, which is home to the state’s capital Juneau, is particularly reliant on state government jobs and activities. 200 Southeast Alaskan leaders participated in the resiliency mapping from 23 communities, representing 24 different sectors. They responded in person or via an online survey to the single question: “What will you do (or what do you think should be done) to ensure the economic resilience of your business/industry/community in response to the impacts of the State budget situation?”
Having experienced a downturn in the economy in the 1990s with the loss of the timber industry, this exercise placed confidence in finding homegrown solutions. The responses received were pragmatic and demonstrated in part efforts that were already underway to become more resilient to the economic storm facing the region and the state. The top responses included reducing business costs, increasing economic development and planning, reducing government spending and services, and increasing taxes.
The final CEDS document – at only 44 pages – is an indispensable resource for the region. It is full of useful information, presented in a very readable, engaging format that includes infographics and images that showcase the beauty of Southeast Alaska. “Our new CEDS is a short, relevant, accessible, and as we like to say, sexy economic planning document,” says Schijvens. Industry leaders, elected officials, non-profit organizations, and other key stakeholders have fully embraced the newly designed CEDS. Communities have been able to use the material in the CEDS when writing grant proposals, taking language about the region directly from the CEDS and including them in their own applications.
Additionally, in an effort to keep the region updated on the most current economic trends and conditions, Southeast Conference updates the Summary Background of the CEDS every year as a public-facing document called “Southeast Alaska by the Numbers.” This document provides an overview of the regional economy and demographics, as well as specific information related to key industries. This year, the document garnered national attention when it was featured in two Associated Press articles (here and here) that covered the condition of the region’s tourism and fishing industries.
Overall, the Southeast 2020 Economic Plan is a strong example of the potential that exists for developing CEDS under EDA’s Content Guidelines. It showcases the region’s voice, emphasizes economic resilience, and is engaging and accessible. Says Southeast Conference’s Schijvens, “What made the difference is that we took our time, were inclusive, and reached out to make sure more voices were heard and reflected in the plan.”
An interview with Meilani Schijvens, Economic Development Director
What does the CEDS mean to your region? How has it helped shape the conversation about regional economic development?
For so many years the CEDS was a massive report that was mostly wish list of community improvement projects in no particular order. It was useful to have the document, but it was less effective in furthering our larger regional economic goals. With the new EDA guidelines we saw an opportunity to develop a really useful tool, not just for us as the Economic Development District, but for the region as a whole. We re-branded to let people know this was going to a different kind of economic planning process. Our new CEDS is a short, relevant, accessible, and as we like to say, sexy economic planning document. The response has been extremely positive and the CEDS is being widely used across the region. An example of the feedback we have received is from the Executive Director of the Alaska Municipal League: “The Southeast CEDS has never looked so good, been so informative, so well laid out, and able to answer the real issues and questions that we all need to know to further Southeast Alaska. You have done an amazing job.”
How have you incorporated the concept of resilience into your CEDS?
At the time we were developing the 5-year CEDS, we were experiencing the fiscal unraveling of our statewide budget, which we knew would have devastating consequences for the region, and likely place us into another recession. The requirement to integrate resiliency into our CEDS created an opportunity. We were coming off of an all-time regional economic high, but we knew we would have to “batten down the hatches” to prepare for the economic storm that was to come (and indeed, is hitting us now). We created a very relevant resiliency exercise for our membership called “Southeast Alaska Resiliency Mapping: Weatherizing for the Economic Storm.” We asked our members, business and political leaders, tribes, community organizations, and municipalities to describe what actions, initiatives, or changes they were planning to implement (or thought should be implemented) to ensure the economic resilience of their business, industry, or community. Southeast Alaskans from 23 communities and 24 sectors across the region shared the actions they planned to take.
Nearly all – 99% of our respondents – said they were concerned about how the budget crisis would impact the regional economy, with 84% saying they are “significantly concerned” or have “maximum concern.” Their responses painted a large-scale view of how the region is reacting to the economic slow-down, allowing us to better support our regional partners in reducing the impacts of State government cuts, and at the same time taking advantage of the collective wisdom of our membership in how to persevere in difficult times.
What ways have you developed and nurtured partnerships with both traditional partners and underrepresented groups?
We have a diverse board and a diverse membership. Southeast Conference has a proven track record of more than 50 years as being the organization that crosses community and sector lines to advocate for the larger common grounds goals in the region. Our two annual regional conferences provide an opportunity for people to meet in person, and these personal connections have continued to be invaluable for relationship building.
In terms of CEDS engagement, our secret weapon was the use of time. We took over a year to develop our 5-year CEDS, getting the message out continuously of what we were doing, and providing invitations for organizations and individuals across the region to get involved. The kind of people we were reaching out for CEDS development are extremely busy, and economic development planning is not necessarily at the top of active executives’ to-do lists. By taking the slow approach, we were able to get the engagement we wanted – with more than 400 members contributing to the economic plan – and making this process a success.
How have you taken your CEDS process from planning to implementation? Any strong examples?
Almost all of our priority objectives have shown considerable activity and progress over the last year, and we have also progress in number of initiatives that were not prioritized. In many ways our CEDS elements tapped into momentum and networks that were already active, and helped coalesce these various strands into more united efforts. Each of our priority objectives has a project champion, and having that key person who is committed to the project is invaluable when it comes to implementation.
Our top CEDS priority is to develop an economically sustainable ferry system. Southeast Conference is working on approach that will identify structural changes to improve the operability and financial health of the state ferry system and our Executive Director Robert Venables is our project champion. Through this initiative we have brought not only the region but the entire state together. Alaska Governor Walker signed a MOU with Southeast Conference in support of these goals and tasked the Conference with leading this statewide effort. This effort was given its own 12-member steering committee. Phase I of this plan is complete, and completion of Phase II is expected in December 2017.
Another key priority is maritime workforce development. Here is how our project champion, shipyard developer Doug Ward, described the value of having this project in our economic plan: “The CEDS 2020 priority project to support a Maritime Industrial Support Sector Talent Pipeline has been key to transitioning our regional economy from resource extraction dependent into a diverse, productive, and highly competitive service economy supporting the Alaska’s marine assets. A resident shipbuilding workforce is required for performing advanced manufacturing in an isolated and rural region. The Southeast Conference CEDS 2020 has been helping the region create a competitive shipbuilding workforce that earned the state-owned shipyard a $100 million contract to build the first state ferries ever made in Alaska. The Shipyard operator leveraged Southeast Conference’ support of the regional maritime industrial support sector to train over 200 Alaska residents to create a regionally competitive shipbuilding work force capable of winning a $244 million ocean going ferry ship construction. Southeast Conference support of the MIS talent pipeline will earn regional businesses additional contracts as the state prepares to recapitalize it’s 50-year old fleet of nine ferries. The CEDS initiative is helping develop one of the youngest, most innovative manufacturing workforces in the nation.”
- Download Southeast Conference’s Southeast Alaska 2020 Economic Plan here (PDF)
- Download the 2017 Southeast Alaska by the Numbers here (PDF)
- Want to learn more about the Southeast Alaska 2020 Economic Plan? Contact Meilani Schijvens, Economic Development Director, at [email protected].
Click here to access additional case studies in the CEDS Spotlight series
Do you have a best practice or innovative approach to developing, designing, and implementing the CEDS? Contact NADO RF Program Manager Brett Schwartz at [email protected].