Alaska’s Innovative Entrepreneurs Walk the ‘Path to Prosperity’
Business competition awards two Haines businesses for their commitment to community
The community crowds the tiny tasting room at Port Chilkoot Distillery to soak in the communal atmosphere, sip spirits infused with local ingredients, and catch up with neighbors.
Photo by Bethany Goodrich
Vibrant local businesses are pumping new life into the historic buildings of Haines, Alaska. Home to 1,800 residents, Haines is a unique community located at the end of the Inside Passage in the southeast of the state. With 46 percent of its population unemployed, according to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, Haines joins most rural Alaska communities on a quest for economic stimulation. However, Haines is rich in entrepreneurial opportunity and business leadership. This spring, the community celebrated two local enterprises in particular: Port Chilkoot Distillery and Fairweather Ski Works.
Both businesses were awarded $40,000 in seed funding for technical services through Path to Prosperity (P2P), an innovative business plan competition. The Nature Conservancy and Haa Aaní LLC founded P2P to identify innovative entrepreneurs in Southeast Alaska and connect them with the resources they need to succeed.
“Innovative local businesses are at the core of a vibrant local economy. Path to Prosperity, through intensive entrepreneur training and business development funding, is helping to develop the next generation of creative small business owners in Southeast Alaska,” explains Norman Cohen, director of Southeast Alaska Programs for The Nature Conservancy.
Thriving local businesses are central to healthy communities, and Haa Aaní LLC and The Nature Conservancy also recognize business as a valuable tool for spreading positive social and environmental impacts across rural communities.
A tour of this year’s winners reveals how innovative entrepreneurs are revitalizing Alaska’s neighborhoods.
Port Chilkoot: ‘Our Distillery’
Fort Seward is an old Army Fort built in Haines during the early 1900s. Today, much of the barracks is in disrepair and the residents of Haines are finding creative uses for the space. A yoga studio, a smoked salmon shop, restaurants, a mill, artist galleries, and a hotel have all moved in. Among this bright cluster of locally owned businesses stands Port Chilkoot Distillery.
Heather Shade founded the distillery in 2012 with her husband and business partner, Sean Copeland.
“People were skeptical at first; they were like: ‘You are doing this here in Haines, why not do it some place where it is easy, where you are closer to bigger markets?’” says Shade.
Producing on a budget, endless paperwork, and regulations are obstacles Shade and Copeland continue to navigate on a daily basis. Despite these challenges, the duo have celebrated many successes. Port Chilkoot has three products on the market—50 Fathoms Gin, Icy Strait Vodka, and 12 Volts Moonshine. The first batch of a three-year barrel-aged whiskey is expected to release later this year. These products serve a high-end niche market across Alaska. Shade successfully lobbied for legislative changes to allow an in-house tasting room. And this spring the couple received a gold medal from the prestigious National American Craft Spirit Awards for the best tasting gin.
“I think we have proven so far that it can be done. Why not in Haines? Why does it have to be somewhere else?” says Shade.
P2P supports businesses plans that have positive social, economic, and environmental impacts on their communities.
“We want to be smart about our consumption and use of energy, heat, water,” Shade says. “And that made sense from a business stand point because it is also cost effective in the long run.”
Waste heat from the production process heats the building space. “As for organic waste, we don’t really have any,” Shade says. Spent grains are dished out to the community to feed pigs and nourish gardens.
Creating salary-wage jobs and supporting the local economy are important to Copeland and Shade, who hired their first full-time employee to run the tasting room last winter.
“Think about all the other people we are connected to locally to make this business. Like Laura, who designs our labels, Kevin, who designed our logo, Eric, who prints our shirts, and Sally, who grows our herbs—there is a human face behind every process,” Shade says.
She stresses how community benefits extend beyond economics.
“There is something intangible here as well, and that’s just sense of pride. Our community is proud now that we have a distillery and that we have a ski builder, and I think it does something psychologically where we are more willing to get involved or to talk in a positive way about things that are happening in our community… It fosters interest in our community, it fosters leadership, it gives a sense of change towards something good,” Shade says.
The community crowds the tiny tasting room to soak in the communal atmosphere, sip spirits infused with local ingredients, and catch up with neighbors.
“I hear people calling it ‘our distillery.’ That is what we always wanted, for the community to think of it as ‘Haines’ Distillery,’” says Shade.
Fairweather Ski Works founders Graham Kraft (left) and Ian Seward add a top sheet before loading the skis into their homemade wooden ski press that will add 180 degrees of heat and up to sixty-thousand pounds of pressure.
Photo by Bethany Goodrich
Fairweather Skis: Local at the Core
Haines is surrounded by mountains. Jagged snowy peaks scale over four thousand feet in all directions. Unsurprisingly, Haines is a top mountain sports destination that attracts skiers and snowboarders from across the globe.
Graham Kraft and Ian Seward are the brains and brawn behind Fairweather Ski Works.
“This is such a hot ski destination and nobody is building skis here… it seemed like a no brainer to be doing this locally. We are uniquely fitted, we have the quality of wood, the quality of mountains, and the spotlight on Haines—we are set up for success,” says Seward.
Seward and Kraft combined years of woodworking experience and an adoration for backcountry exploration to found Fairweather Ski Works in 2013. It took the duo six years of trial, error, and skiing to master the current design. Local wood is at the core of every ski.
“We are lucky to have both paper birch and Sitka spruce available locally. These are the two main ingredients for traditional wood ski building because they both have an optimum strength to weight ratio and a great degree of flexibility without breaking,” Seward says.
Seward and Kraft take pride in tracing each ski back to a carefully selected, sustainable timber source.
“Our skis are a very efficient use of wood, and we only use about six board feet per pair of skis. By selectively harvesting or using salvaged timber, we can make our impact on the environment as minimal as possible while still contributing to the local economy,” says Kraft.
Kraft and Seward look to local businesses for goods and services whenever possible. Many of their products are adorned with the work of local artists. They also support the greater Haines economy by strengthening ski-based tourism, a key economic driver in the community.
“We are working with community partners to build back-country ski huts in the area as part of a larger movement to try and bring off-season, winter tourism to town. That’s going to be a big help to this place,” says Seward.
When they are not in the woodshop perfecting their designs they are out testing them on the slopes.
“Our skis are designed to handle the rigors of the Alaska wilderness. We have personally tested them on a human powered traverse completely across the largest non-polar icecap in the world, through Glacier Bay, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kluane national parks. We also have a quickly growing number of Alaskans on our skis testing them out in all corners of the state,” boasts Kraft.
Innovative Small Businesses Build a Sustainable Alaska Economy Rural Alaska communities face many economic challenges.
“One big challenge is that the people of Haines seem to be divided about what their vision is for making the place economically sustainable while still preserving its way of life, its natural beauty, and resources,” says Shade.
“Part of our original vision when we created Port Chilkoot Distillery was to prove that we could do things on a small scale that fits into the community, that people want, that also exports products out of the community and imports dollars to help our community grow—all without harming our way of life.”
Copeland, Shade, Seward, and Kraft share this common vision for their small businesses. They are not alone. They join a diversity of innovative entrepreneurs across the region that are capitalizing on Alaska’s unique resources to build successful, sustainable, value-added business ventures.
Alana Peterson is the P2P Competition Administrator for Haa Aaní LLC.
“We received over one hundred applications in the first two years of the P2P program. This just proves the region is rich in entrepreneurial activity and opportunities. It also speaks to the need that entrepreneurs in the region have for technical support when it comes to starting or growing their businesses,” says Peterson.
Ian Grant is the Associate State Director for the Alaska Small Business Development Center—a supporting partner of P2P. Grant shares this sentiment.
“Healthy small businesses truly are the backbone and driving force of a sustainable Alaskan economy. In 2014, the impact of Alaska Small Business Development Center clients alone represented sixty-six new businesses, 239 jobs, and $89.99 million in private investments,” Grant says.
“Small businesses face a broad spectrum of challenges whether it be in accessing capital, managing high energy costs and fixed expenses, or the overall business management.”
For small businesses in particular, the “path to prosperity” can be punctuated with obstacles. However, with the support of innovative partnerships and programs like P2P, entrepreneurs across the region are proving that a sustainable and diverse Alaska economy is within reach.
“We are rich in natural resources. We are rich in culture. I think we often get stuck on the challenges, but the opportunities are huge,” Peterson says. “All the businesses that we have identified through P2P have really made me feel optimistic because they were already out there. We didn’t create these businesses or these people.”
Bethany Goodrich is a freelance multimedia journalist and the Communications Coordinator for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.