Juneau residents advocating a road up Lynn Canal have some explaining to do before people in Haines take their cause seriously.
Specifically, they need to make a convincing case that increasing access to Juneau will help the economy of Haines. That’s a tall, maybe impossible, order. But until the case is made, they’re just whistling in the wind.
By its relative isolation, Haines has an “island” economy. Money tends to stay here. Costs are sometimes high, but businesses have grown up on that extra money. We have two lumberyards and a hardware store, three grocery stores, three sporting goods shops, furniture and bike stores, a half-dozen restaurants, and, until recently, as many hotels and motels. That’s not counting gift shops, art galleries, a brewery and this newspaper. All are independently owned.
That’s a remarkable retail sector for a town of 2,500, and it allows us to buy things here that can’t be found in other towns our size. All those stores also represent jobs for residents and tax revenues that pay for programs like our free ambulance service.
In recent years, business owners have seen losses to out-of-town “big box” stores and to the Internet. And they’ve seen places like Skagway and Seward and Talkeetna where improved road access to urban centers has whittled down retail to a few, small general stores supplying mostly ice cream cones and gasoline to weekenders and folks passing through.
Improved road access would likely cost us a lumberyard, a motel and a grocery store right off the top. It would erode the viability of businesses that depend on the others, like this one. It may certainly bring some benefits such as less expensive consumer goods for residents and a spike in real estate with construction of second homes for Juneau residents. But if we’ve learned anything from the national recession, it’s that cheap consumer goods and housing booms are no substitutes for permanent jobs.
This town is an island in the world. Life on the island is pretty good. Improving road access moves us closer to the mainland, making us less of a town and more like just another wide spot in the road.