Leaving Alaska: Thousands migrate for a strong Lower 48 economy

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) According to a study from the Alaska Department of Labor, when the economy is strong in the Lower 48 and unemployment is low, more people leave Alaska in search of opportunity.

“What we found over the last five years was a trend where every year without fail, we’re seeing 16,000 people move from the Lower 48 to Anchorage and about 20,000 people a year moving to the Lower 48,” said Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Development Corp. “So that’s a net loss of about 20,000 from Anchorage to the Lower 48 over the past five years.”

The high out-migration for Anchorage is mirrored in figures for the rest of the state. The past five years have seen increasing numbers of Alaska residents leave the state as the national unemployment rate dropped.

“Alaska’s continuous net migration loss makes sense given that the nation’s economic expansion has hit a record length and the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to a near 50-year low,” read a report written by Neal Fried, a State of Alaska economist.

“A smaller population means a smaller marketplace and less spending in our community,” said Popp, who continued to describe that a declining population hurts local businesses and entrepreneurs.

The AEDC is now looking at improving quality of life indicators such as a strong university district, strong arts sector, accessible parks and trails as a way to attract and retain talent.

Paula Bradison, president of Alaska Executive Search, said the recruitment company had seen a rise in job orders but difficulty hiring in some sectors, particularly for accountants, who are said to be in demand.

“Absolutely,” said Bradison to the question of whether a strong economy in the Lower 48 is pulling people away. Ongoing state budget turmoil is also said to be making some small and midsize businesses nervous.

“What I hear from the employers is uncertainty, even from our strongest legacy businesses, this is the first time in my career that I’ve heard this level of uncertainty,” Bradison said. The consequence is that some businesses are nervous about making a hire and talented people are being snapped up out of state.

In late July, the AEDC released a scathing three-year outlook for Anchorage, warning that budget instability and the governor’s vetoes would worsen the recession and spark higher out-migration.

The report suggested that if some of the vetoes are restored that those population losses would be mitigated.

There is however a bright spot for Anchorage. Barbara Ramsey, an associate broker at ReMax Dynamic Properties, said the property market appeared to be relatively balanced. She described falling oil prices, budget uncertainty and high unemployment as “speed bumps” but said that the property market could weather the storm.

The number of homes being built or on the market is a major difference from 1986 when the economy tanked and people left the state en masse. “We had a lot of inventory on the market, that created a nosedive, created a car crash,” Ramsey said.

“While no single landlord’s vacancy is an indicator of the whole market, and we offer a different product than other landlords, we currently are still seeing a healthy demand for our rentals,” read a prepared statement from the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. “However, we are concerned that current budget decisions could begin to negatively affect demand in the not so distant future for our region and across the state."

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