Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism Timber used to be the economic engine of Ketchikan, Alaska, but after the pulp mill there closed in the '90s, the town turned to tourism.
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Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism

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Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism

Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to hear a story of reinvention. When a city or town sees its main industry collapse, it can die or learn to survive in a new way. Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska used to depend on timber. In 1997, Ketchikan's big pulp mill shut down. Hundreds of good-paying jobs went with it. The city found new life by embracing tourism. NPR's Melissa Block has this report for her series Our Land.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: When we first get there, Ketchikan's a really sleepy place. Jewelry and gift stores are closed, their windows papered over.

SARKES SOLOMON: We're not open.

BLOCK: But in just another couple of days...

SOLOMON: It's going to look like Disneyland for grown-up people.

BLOCK: I find Sarkes Solomon in a last-minute frenzy, unpacking cartons of fur coats at the store he manages.

SOLOMON: Because everybody's last hope is to make it to Alaska. And usually this is either their first stop or their last stop.

BLOCK: On a cruise ship, that is. This borough of about 13,000 people will welcome 1 million cruise ship tourists this season alone, as many as 13,000 visitors in a single day.

DAVE DIXON: We'll double in population for eight hours.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's Ketchikan harbormaster Dave Dixon. I find him out on the dock, waiting for the morning's first cruise ship to pull into port.

I'm picturing this as, like, a tidal surge. The - a ship comes in, a tide of tourists disgorges into the town, and then the tide goes out and off they go.

DIXON: Yes, it's very much like that.

BLOCK: It used to be so different here.

ERIC COLLINS: It was this boomtown. It was just a crazy, wild frontier place.

BLOCK: Eric Collins has a long view of the logging industry and Ketchikan. Some of his earliest memories are of the nearby logging camp where he lived with his family in the late '60s. They moved on to Ketchikan when he was 9. It was the heyday of timber.

COLLINS: We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. You know, we had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They're all gone.

BLOCK: What's replaced them? Well, jewelry stores - lots and lots of them, some owned by the cruise ship companies - souvenir and gift shops. It's seasonal retail work and nowhere near as well-paid as the old family-sustaining jobs, Collins tells me. At the end of September...

COLLINS: Within a few-day period the town will be boarded up downtown. I mean, literally most of the businesses will be closed. And then the people will leave town.

BLOCK: Collins' former job? He worked as a tugboat captain.

COLLINS: I miss tugboats. Tugboater at heart.

BLOCK: Yeah?

COLLINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: His job depended on the logging industry. The tugboats supplied the logging camps and the Ketchikan pulp mill. It was the last pulp mill left in Alaska when it closed in '97. It was facing global competition, as well as new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations. More than 500 workers lost their jobs.

COLLINS: It was crazy. People were leaving town as fast as they could. Property values plummeted. I remember foreclosures, auctions at the courthouse, people losing everything, not being able to get a job and selling their houses and leaving town.

BLOCK: Collins' company was in charge of cleaning out the logging camps and the pulp mill, closing them down. He was the last one on the job. He tells me about an old company photograph that showed him and the other managers.

COLLINS: As things were declining and we were all going out of business, one of our engineers, Lyle (ph), started coloring the faces black as people lost their jobs and went away.

BLOCK: On that photograph.

COLLINS: On that photograph. And I symbolically colored my face black and shut the lights out and left the office, went home, started my new job.

BLOCK: That new job for this former tugboat captain?

COLLINS: So now I'm a cruise ship pilot.

BLOCK: That's right. Now Eric Collins steers those giant tourist ships into Ketchikan. Back on the dock...

DIXON: Yeah, there they are.

BLOCK: ...Harbormaster Dave Dixon spies the morning's first arrival hoving into port, Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship. It looks like a floating skyscraper set against the snowy mountains that line Alaska's Inside Passage. The gangplank is lowered and 2,000 passengers march ashore with a gaggle of tour operators there to greet them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome to Ketchikan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have two shows today, one at 11:15...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The world's largest totem pole.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...And one at 3 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A chance for killer whales and humpbacks. It's way too early for bears this time of year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You'll eat there. It's all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feast.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's a good chance of seeing bears, eagles...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a great way to see a little bit of everything.

BLOCK: And if the tourists want a taste of what Ketchikan used to be, they can go watch timber sports, where competitors chop, saw and throw axes at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here we go. Sawyers, ready? One, two, go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAWS REVVING)

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Ketchikan, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES' "HUNG UP ON MY BABY")

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