Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Anchorage Cold Storage lesson

When I was working at the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank in Anchorage, I was asked to review a proposal for a cold storage at the International Airport. This was in about 1985. It called for a massive facility that would process fish from all over the North Pacific; Prince Willian Sound, Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and even out on the Alaska Peninsula. That was the extent of it.

There was no discussion to explain how the fish were going to magically appear at the front door of the cold storage. There was no discussion of what fishermen would be willing to supply the fish, or what other processing plant owners would cooperate to lighten their own work load. I had worked in every area of the state by then, and even Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. I couldn't see where they were going with the project, but worse, they would have had to get every participant in the industry to change their modus operandi. Even the shore workers would have to relocate.

Needless to say I was incensed, so the management of the Bank had another loan officer write the decline letter so it would sound polite. Maybe we shouldn't have been so polite. It was a foray by the Danes and they had an Anchorage front man who was just a patsy. It could have been nipped in the bud right then and saved Alaskans $25 million that could have been spent on many other fisheries related projects that were, and still are, underfunded.

These things never get DISCOURAGED because nobody wants to be percieved as the devils advocate. Allowing such projects to take on any life of their own is a crime in my book. Fleecing the taxpayer doesn't seem to be a crime though. So, the Danes kept pushing the project; slowly but surely, like the proverbial pot of water on the stove with the frog in it. The Danes wanted to sell their fish processing equipment and also market the finished product. And at that time, there wasn't a market for many valued-added fish products in this country. Maybe in Denmark there was and they thought we should eat roll mops (pickled herring) for breakfast like the Europeans.

After the passage of the 200 mile limit law, the Danes saw Alaska as fertile ground to sell their seafood industry expertise and their machinery. My father was being used by the State as a bottom-fish expert in those early years of our ground-fish sector and so he went with a delegation to Denmark. Those Danes really rolled out the red carpet: dinner at the Queens castle and all. A nice Old World charm, but it didn't fool many people I knew.

The Dane that was assigned to push the project moved to Anchorage to live and I met him for coffee in about '93. The paper proposal was getting thicker, but I still didn't see anything that had changed. Also there was no shift toward more air transport. (More on that tomorrow.) Then my optomitrist, who was on the City Council, bubbled about how they were running a big water main out to the proposed site. I just about had heart failure right in his examination chair. I could see the project was at the point of no return. Anchorage had to talk the State into it then.

So up to now the Danes, who didn't know or care about our distribution system that had evolved over 100 years, had used a shill, some Councillors who had never set foot anywhere in the seafood industry, and were now zeroing in on state government. I had already seen the Department of Commerce fund a dock in Homer for a factory trawl company who obviously, to me, had to fish in the Bering Sea. Naturally, it was never used to land one fish, except maybe by some twelve year olds with fishing poles.

When you get to using economic development types instead of seafood industry types, you get one wild and wooly ride. And an expensive one. And one that just bucks you off. Credentials aren't necessary in this arena. The goal is to build something to stick on your resume, whether it works or not. This is politics. Like in, if you vote for my project, I'll vote for yours. But back up one step. In economic development there's chiefly only the project at hand, being pushed by people with unclear motives, and mostly not altruistic and knowledge based.

I think the wild days of a lot of oil money to throw around are behind us, but the lessons haven't all been learned. Conversations like on the Internet will go a long way to remedy making the same old mistakes all the time. Blogging especially has made this is a new world, exposed to the light of day. Just ask Dan Rather.

Anyway, the Anchorage Cold Storage was funded and some processing machinery brought in, but that's as far as it went. In a de ja vu all over again scenario, I was asked by the Economic Development Administration to comment on a plan, by U of A folks, to resurrect the plant. About that time it was announced it was being sold for scrap, so to speak.

I just don't understand wanting to climb aboard a project when you don't know the history of the captain, crew and ship. Whether the ship has been maintained, the captain hit a few too many rocks, the crew is experienced, no creeks have been robbed in the past, the captain has a good catch record, there aren't any partners that are "running the boat from the dock," and etc. You'll see the people with the most experience wanting answers, folks with just some fishing experience straddling the fence or giving the benefit of the doubt, and folks with little to no experience in cold storage operations and related strategic planning, being outspoken proponents.

"Remember the concept of the red flag if you don't remember anything else." Petersburg City Councilors in 1990 will remember me saying that at the end of a talk on Fisheries Infrastructure. Two minutes into the following Council Meeting, they nixed a plan to incinerate garbage that must have had red flags all over it.


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