Jenna Wright was named president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation on Sept. 27, after serving in an interim role following the resignation of Bill Popp.
Wright joined AEDC last summer, while they were assembling the Choose Anchorage plan. The initiative is aimed at retaining and attracting workers, which Wright places as the city’s primary economic challenge. She says the first step is to retain the young workers already here.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jenna Wright: Our data shows that right now, we’re losing about one in three of our young adult population as measured from the time they’re 16, to where they’re at when they’re 26, one in three of them are gone. And so we know that we’ve got some room there to actually just retain the amazing talent that we already have in Alaska, that already has roots here, for whatever reason. And then on top of that, we need to attract workforce.
Careers are becoming a lifestyle decision, which is a really interesting shift from what we’ve seen in the past. We are increasingly seeing families say like, “Hey, where do we want to live that aligns with our personal priorities or preferences?” And then they’re choosing a job from there, because jobs are just in total abundance across this country right now. So, we need to make Anchorage a place worth choosing over another U.S. city, hence the name Choose Anchorage.
And one of the things that we’re hearing as we’re looking at data from surveys of workforce that’s been interviewed is that they want quality of life amenities. So they want great trails, they want convention centers that their favorite bands are going to come to, they want a lively downtown. And then it’s also important that we have the fundamental or foundational issues sorted out as well. Is there somewhere that I can afford to live that I like, that’s nice. Is there a school down the street that’s got great education for my children? Do I feel safe in my neighborhood? So those are all these things that play into why people choose to live where they live.
Michael Fanelli: Let’s just start with the housing piece. Housing has become increasingly unaffordable in recent years. What do we do about that? How can we try to reverse that trend?
JW: Yeah, last I looked, housing was, $473,000 was the average sales price so far this year. Last year, we only built just over 400. I believe it was 402 units of housing. That’s nowhere near enough. And so that’s the most obvious solution. We just need to build more housing. We need to build more housing across the entire spectrum of density and affordability. You know, Anchorage has a lot of land up on the Hillside, and so we sprawl up there, and there’s some beautiful homes being built on the Hillside. But they’re not affordable for the majority of people. And so whatever we can do to support more multifamily units here in Anchorage, I think, is going to be really important for our vision to attract workforce. And so whether that’s some code changes – I know there’s a lot of talk being done at the Assembly level, as well as community groups throughout town – and ways to encourage kind of gentle density throughout the town. Those are all things that I think will help with our lack of building that we have here in Anchorage right now.
MF: I’m curious what your personal priority [is], what do you see when you look out at the landscape as a personal point of work that you want to focus on?
JW: So from a personal perspective, and this is my own preference, I am an avid mountain runner, mountain biker, dogwalker, hiker. And so I love using all the trails within Anchorage. And there’s a lot of congestion at them, which is a great thing. It means more people are using the trails, which means that they’re falling in love with Anchorage, and they’re more likely to stay. So all of those things work into the overall goals that we have here at AEDC. But I don’t believe that we have enough access points, nor are the access points large enough. We had our first sunny weekend in a while last weekend up at Glen Alps, and I went up there and there was not a single parking spot, and people were circling the parking lot. So I think if we can expand access to the beautiful Chugach State Park that’s in our backyard, that would be a great step for the city to be able to really leverage our recreational assets. And the same goes for our urban trails as well.