Pink salmon, groundfish harvests boost city’s economy

Koplin: Visitor industry recovered remarkably over last year

Cordova, Alaska. (Nov. 16, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordova’s economy has vastly improved over the past year, the pandemic notwithstanding, thanks in large part to a strong pink salmon and groundfish season in Prince William Sound and strong canned salmon prices, Mayor Clay Koplin said.

“The visitor industry, while not fully restored, has also recovered remarkably over the past year,” Koplin said Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Transportation availability, also critical to the economy, is much improved too, he said.

Ferry service was exceptional, with the Aurora coming in all summer long. Now in layup for maintenance, the Aurora will be back in service in December. The availability of that state ferry has been a huge economic and psychological lift, he said.

In addition to scheduled Alaska Airlines flights into Cordova, Midnight Sun Aviation, ACE Air Cargo and the charter service Arctic on Demand are serving the city, he said.

Still, the community continues to face major challenges in the availability of a workforce to fill job openings, housing and room for the economy to grow, especially in waterfront lands, the mayor said during a telephone interview from Washington D.C. The purpose of his visit was to work with the U.S. Department of Energy on energy projects, but Koplin was also present with tribal representatives advocating for “updating our outdated medical facilities and for waterfront infrastructure,” he said.

The group also had a warm reception from the state’s congressional delegation and a lot of good suggestions, he said, adding “they are impressed that Cordova works together.”

Waterfront needs include replacing the south harbor, developing more uplands space for businesses and fisheries support, he said. Other infrastructure needs include more space in the harbor and a drive-down ramp to get to the water to get stuff off of boats, more cranes to lift freight off of boats and more room in the shipyard.

“We really haven’t done upgrades on the harbor in over 50 years,” he said.

Cordova has made very wise infrastructure decisions in the past and has had a lot of support from state and federal partners, including the Coast Guard, due to past success, he said. Additionally, the Native Village of Eyak and the Eyak and Chugach Alaska corporations have been strong partners, he said.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic drags on for a second year, it is still restricting some Cordova business activities on a case-by-case basis. While there are no community wide mandates in place some businesses have their own protocols, some being very strict and some very relaxed. One popular visitor industry attraction, for example, requires staff to mask up and clients to be vaccinated.

At the time of the interview, said Koplin, the city was at zero new cases and only one active case, a status he attributes to “a world-class medical team” and good testing. Most of the population is either vaccinated or has had the virus and recovered. While masking is not required, most are masking still inside businesses, he said.

Clearly the overall economy is significantly better than a year ago, with a very strong tourism sport fishing season in late summer, through August and September. People were making reservations, some of them rebooking from the 2020 season.

“I just know they showed up and the fish showed up so everybody was happy,” he said. “The B&Bs and hotels definitely did better, some better than others.”

Meanwhile, everyone is struggling to find enough workers to fill jobs. Many businesses tried to reopen and couldn’t find enough workers from seafood processing plants to city utilities to restaurants.

But Koplin remains optimistic, pointing to the live, in-town Electrify Alaska conference coming up Oct. 25-28, with anticipated attendance at 100-150 people. The hotels and B&Bs are filling up, and one group from Fairbanks is coming via sailboat from Valdez, he said.