October 14, 2010 |

Volunteer burnout, polarization cited as town's impediments

A panel of 12 community leaders who gathered at the public library Sept. 29 said Haines could be strengthened through a loan program to encourage small businesses; by developing a central community garden; by growing the pool of active volunteers; and by adopting a code of ethics to guide contentious community discussions.

An "us versus them" mentality and volunteer burnout were the biggest impediments to moving the community forward, group members said. Panelists listed strengthening the local economy as a concern.

The library hosted discussion of the question, "What can be done to strengthen the Haines community?" as part of a two-year grant focusing on strategies isolated, rural communities can use to survive tough economic times.

About 20 residents attended the talk.

Panelists were artist and planning commissioner Rob Goldberg, Kluane bike race organizer Judy Ewald, Haines Assisted Living administrator Vince Hansen, Big Brothers Big Sisters director Burl Sheldon, physical therapist and wellness advocate Marnie Hartman, pre-school teacher Iris Kemp, senior center manager Ann Hanssen, library board member James Alborough, Hospice volunteer and massage therapist Liz Marantz, borough assembly member Daymond Hoffman, psychotherapist Robyn Grace, and youth advocate Irene Hoffling.

Facilitator Cecily Stern said other panelists had been invited, including Klukwan villagers and Chilkoot Indian Association members, but were unable to attend.

Panelists were chosen because they were "community leaders," Stern said, as defined by prominent business and community consultant Dr. Margaret Wheatley. "A leader is not someone who desires power and control. A leader is someone who sees a need and does something to fulfill that need."

Stern asked panelists to comment on what they thought was needed to strengthen the community in their area of interest.

Goldberg focused on strengthening the local economy. Instead of hiring an economic development director, the Haines Borough should use the $75,000 it budgeted for wages and benefits to set up a no-interest loan program, he said.

For instance, the community had huge potential to develop small businesses making value-added products from local wood, he said. Clear spruce and hemlock from the Haines State Forest could be used to make products such as wood carvings, sturdy, light-weight rowing oars, or guitar tops.

"I think our forest is underutilized," said Goldberg. "We have clear hemlock here. Two of the logs Scott Rossman delivered to me were clear. I’m not going to use that for firewood. I’m going to make something out of it…I think the potential is there."

Goldberg said Haines should work to attract cruise ships in the evening, after they had spent the day in Skagway. Trips to the Jilkaat Kwaan cultural center in Klukwan – eventually including a museum displaying the famed Whale House artifacts and a space for Native dancing – could be marketed as an evening tour, he said.

Goldberg said it also was crucial the borough become more self-sufficient in food production to guard against astronomical rises in fuel and food prices, and advocated a large community garden, an idea seconded by Hoffling.

"I think food security is huge," Hoffling said. "We could supply our school, we could supply our senior center. If we have some land, it’s not that hard to grow things."

Grace said a community garden and greenhouse could provide community service opportunities for therapy clients and for high school students.

Resident Bill Kurz said addressing transportation costs should be a priority.

Sheldon said encouraging commerce, recognizing the importance of clean air and water, and acknowledging that residents had more in common than they differed were key.

Some residents "spun" a 1996 Haines protest in response to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s illegal dumping of waste in Lynn Canal into a story that Haines was unfriendly to cruise ships. Countering that myth is key, Sheldon said.

"It had nothing to do with tourism. It had to do with the recognition of the importance of clean air and water. The most important thing is to talk positively about ourselves."

Stern asked the group to comment on ways the community might discuss divisive issues, and said that according to Wheatley, "Conflict means that you both care."

Businessman Thom Ely said the Chamber of Commerce, the borough, and community groups should collaborate on building the consensus required to move forward. "We have an "us versus them" mentality…As a community, we can only move forward together, not as a faction. There is always a battle about something."

Marantz said she and others recently had formed a group to address the issue of productive community dialogue, building on the work of a 1996 forum led by Dan Henry called "Good Neighbors." The new group is called TED, or Towards Effective Dialogue, she said.

Audience member Carol Tuynman said the public should ask governing bodies to set the example for respectful community discourse. "If the people who make the laws and rules promote uncivil discourse, even through omission, then it really is the rule…it is our responsibility. We elect them."

Hoffman said respectful communication and productive dialogue on difficult issues were a primary concern for him as an assembly member.

Sheldon said a more diverse group should attend a second library forum. Resident Tim McDonough concurred. "Make it lively, but do it civilly. That’s where you get beyond "us versus them."

Retired teacher and TED group member Jo Ann Ross Cunningham said the setting for community discussion on difficult topics deserved some thought. Where the library served as a neutral space, the assembly chambers did not. "As a community, we need to be smart about where we have conversations. Public meetings are a recipe for explosive dynamics."

Goldberg said the community’s "strong people" were an asset. The library, the new school, organizations like Haines Friends of Recycling, the Bald Eagle Foundation, and Haines Assisted Living had succeeded because individuals championed the idea, he said.

Panelist Vince Hansen said the same group of doers did a bulk of the volunteer work for community boards and events, and said he wanted to find ways to draw on a larger pool of residents.

Alborough said he had designed a new volunteer bulletin board on the community website www.hainesak.com to link organizations and volunteers. "It’s a place where organizations can post their need. Then we can publicize that some more, and hopefully draw people who want to help."

Kemp said high school students were a largely untapped resource, and often needed only an invitation to participate. Audience member Linda Geise said retirees’ skills also were underutilized.