AEDC 3-Year Outlook: “The War for Talent”
The “Choose Anchorage” campaign that AEDC launched in January carries through with the swag for attendees at the August outlook luncheon.
Bill Popp made no reference to his impending retirement as president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) to a wall-to-wall crowd at the nonprofit’s annual 3-Year Outlook luncheon. No reference, that is, except one.
Decline in Working-Age Adults
“While retirees living longer is a good thing—I feel that—these are individuals who are becoming increasingly focused on enjoying the remaining years of their life and less interested in working,” he said. The audience chuckled, aware of Popp’s intention to enjoy his own remaining years, effective December 15, when he departs after leading the organization since 2007.
Laughter aside, Popp was warning of a crisis in the local workforce. Twice as many job openings are being posted as the number of workers available to fill them. Anchorage is “suffering from a decline in working-age adults,” Popp said, noting that about 1,000 fewer people aged 16 to 64 have been looking for work each month in 2023 compared to a year earlier.
Popp added, “The decline in job seekers is not because there are a lot of people sitting on the sidelines instead of seeking a job; 70 percent of [age] 16 and older citizens of Anchorage are in the active labor force, which is 7 percent higher than the US average of 63 percent.”
Since 2013, Anchorage lost 18,600 working age adults, and the 3-Year Outlook forecasts another 2,900 going away by 2026. “We’ve lost one out of ten of the workers we used to have,” Popp said. “Let that sink in for a moment.”
There were some positives in the annual report compiled for AEDC by McKinley Research Group. A decline in Anchorage’s population is expected to reverse this year, growing by what Popp joked was a “whopping” 0.3 percent to 290,800 residents from last year’s 289,810, mainly thanks to births outpacing deaths.
Personal incomes are forecast to hit a record high of $23 billion by 2026. Price inflation, which had Popp wary in January of a looming recession, has abated. Hotel and rental car tax collections posted record highs, which Popp credits to the eagerness of retiring Baby Boomers to travel.
Overall, Popp sees a “very bright future” for Anchorage, but the city faces some hard decisions. “Cities and companies across the US are ruthlessly competing to steal workers from other cities and other companies,” he said. “Quality of life elements are a key weapon being used in this national war for talent. Cities currently winning the talent war are reinvesting in themselves, spending money to improve their sales pitch to workers all over the country to move to their city.”
As an example of reinvestment, AEDC invited the former mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, to deliver the keynote address. Serving from 2004 to 2018, Cornett helped the city crawl out of a decline that saw it near collapse in the early ‘90s. During his four terms, Oklahoma City invested nearly $2 billion into schools, wellness centers, parks, transit, and a convention center.
The Weapon of ‘Why’
Dozens of placards featuring business and community figures, starting with AEDC’s own leadership, decorated the Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center as the next phase of the “Choose Anchorage” campaign.
Anchorage’s reinvestment campaign began in July with the announcement of the Great Streets Façade Improvement Loan Program. The Anchorage Community Development Authority is helping Downtown and Muldoon business owners borrow up to $25,000 at 5 percent interest to improve storefronts, which was the top-ranked recommendation of the Project Anchorage Task Force formed by Mayor Dave Bronson.
Further investments may have to wait. Bronson told the AEDC luncheon that the main goal of the 2024 municipal operating budget he’s preparing is to lower property taxes. “I’ve asked my directors to propose scenarios that would envision a flat budget, a 2 percent cut budget, and a 4 percent cut budget,” Bronson explained. “To lower property taxes, we must reduce the budget, as spending drives the taxes that need to be collected.”
Meanwhile, AEDC is fighting the talent war with its own weapon: the Choose Anchorage campaign that it launched in January. Attendees of the luncheon passed by a gallery of placards displaying answers by business and community leaders to the question, “Why do you choose Anchorage?” Each one touted the urban amenities and wild setting that make Anchorage a desirable place to live, work, and play.
“We have every reason to be excited about the future of Anchorage, but we are also facing unprecedented challenges that must be met head on as we enter a new era,” Popp said. He did not specify exactly what makes the era new; in the context of the entire 3-Year Outlook, demographic changes are the most profound difference.
Between the lines, though, AEDC enters a new era in 2024 under new leadership, without Popp as CEO.