Spruce Root among 60 finalists for $1 billion in development grants

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo, second from left, meets with Southeast Alaska Native leaders at Sealaska Heritage Plaza on Wednesday to discuss the Spruce Root project, which is among 60 finalists seeking a share of a billion dollar federal development grant. Spruce Roots hopes to be among 20 to 30 winners who will each receive up to $100 million, with the project aiming to create 250 new jobs, $22 million in new annual economic activity and $20 million in new infrastructure. (Mark Sabbatini / Empire Juneau)

On a visit meant to hear about daily life rather than a sales pitch, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo spent a few hours Wednesday meeting with natives of southeastern Alaska collaborating on the Spruce Root Development project after being named among 60 finalists for part of a $1 billion federal grant.

Spruce Root was among 529 applicants for the regional $1 billion Build Back Better Challenge, which is to be awarded. between 25 and 100 million dollars to 20 to 30 regional coalitions in September. The Alaska Mariculture Cluster of the Southeastern Conference is also named an Alaska finalist. It seeks to develop a sustainable mariculture industry in communities stretching from the southeast to the southwest of the state.

“Just the fact that this proposal has been given such high value is truly a testament to all the incredible work you have done,” Castillo told nine Spruce Root attendees during a midday roundtable at the Central Council of Indian Tribes. Alaskan Tlingit and Haida. Training and Resource Center.

Castillo spent about an hour Wednesday morning touring the Sealaska Heritage Plaza, including the under-construction arts campus building where various Northwest Coast arts are made, before the 90-minute roundtable. Bob Christensen, a Hoonah native and regional catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership that coordinates the Spruce Root effort, said he was initially skeptical of Castillo’s short visit where he was prohibited from actively showcasing the merits of the proposal.

“I was pretty grumpy last night about this two-hour blitz with this band that’s had their skin in the game since birth,” he told her. “I’ve just been so impressed with you and I think it was worth it.”

Castillo noted that the Build Back Challenge is part of a suite of US bailout programs distributing $3 billion to help communities recover from the pandemic and build local economies resilient to future economic shocks. As such, her discussion included mentions of asking for funding sources beyond the Challenge Grant and noting that her visit to Juneau will help her when she works with members of the Alaska Congressional delegation. .

“When I go back to see Senator (Dan) Sullivan, I can say I’ve met some incredible people,” she said, reciting the names of many people gathered around the table.

Each of the 60 finalists received $500,000 to help submit their Phase 2 plans for final review by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.

“This once-in-a-generation funding opportunity aims to strengthen bottom-up and middle ground growth in communities nationwide by leveraging local assets and encouraging collaboration,” a description announcing the finalist notes. “The regional Build Back Better Challenge will help regional economies not only recover from the pandemic, but – in some cases – overcome decades of economic distress.”

The finalists include 15 indigenous communities and 15 coal communities seeking to transform their regions. All finalists received $500,000 to help submit their Phase 2 plans for final review by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, which must allocate the funds by September 30.

The Spruce Root Project, which benefits Indigenous communities in the Southeast, aims to create 250 new jobs, $22 million in new annual economic activity and $20 million in new infrastructure. Specific projects include workspaces for Indigenous artists, storage sheds and kitchens for Indigenous food and medicine processing, road repairs, increased fuel replacement with renewable energy, and training of 100 adults and 50 young people in careers in construction and management of forest resources.

As the second runner-up from Alaska, the Southeast Conference project plans to develop a $100 million per year mariculture industry in 20 years, creating 1,500 jobs. It specifically mentions Pacific oysters, geoducks, kelp, blue mussels, red king crab and sea cucumbers as production targets.

“The projections of this 20-year goal, adjusted for inflation, could generate a $1 billion mariculture industry in 30 years, given a coordinated industry-led effort using public partnerships. -private and a comprehensive statewide plan designed to achieve this goal,” a briefing note for the project.

Castillo opened the Spruce Root roundtable by urging attendees to lay down protocols for a visiting dignitary in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of a candid discussion of the daily lives, struggles and goals for the future of their communities.

“We are not here to discuss the merits of the proposal in any way, but we are here to discuss the coalition,” she said.

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, said the struggle in her community is a “double survival” economy since subsistence is essential for food – not just a cultural tradition – while sufficient cash income is also necessary. There is a lack of modern motivation among some residents to accept this way of life.

“It’s the men who don’t do as well in taking advantage of educational and economic opportunities,” she said. “We even struggle to involve them in traditional activities like fishing.”

Other difficulties are factors that hamper efforts to provide sustainable development and jobs, Worl said. She observed that “the peoples of the Southeast achieved one of the most complex Indigenous societies in North America…but it was stripped from us. »

The Spruce Root grant will help us “enable us to acquire our own natural resources to support economic development,” she said.

The abrupt changes in the economy of the Southeast over the years, such as the loss of logging in some communities, “was a change that we as a community were not prepared for”, said Jacqueline Pata, President and CEO of the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority. . She said partnerships with government agencies, community investments from other residents such as artists, and acceptance of widespread societal changes in environmental consciousness are elements of a sustainable future.

“I think that’s another key part of Sealaska’s focus for this partnership,” she said.

Castillo, while giving no indicators on how the Spruce Root project compares to other merit finalists, said she felt the goals discussed aligned in many ways with what the grant is intended to support.

“It’s a strong concept everywhere,” she says.

“I hope to return,” she added, a wish whose implications everyone else in the room agreed with.

Contact journalist Mark Sabbatini at jeauempire.com.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo, second from right, participates in a panel discussion Wednesday at the Tlingit & Haida Vocational Training & Resource Center with Native representatives from Southeast Alaska participating in the project SpruceRoot.  (Mark Sabbatini / Empire Juneau)

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo, second from right, participates in a panel discussion Wednesday at the Tlingit & Haida Vocational Training & Resource Center with Native representatives from Southeast Alaska participating in the project SpruceRoot. (Mark Sabbatini / Empire Juneau)

United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo views Indigenous art inside the still-under-construction Sealaska Heritage Plaza campus building during her visit to Juneau on Wednesday.  (Mark Sabbatini / Empire Juneau)

United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alejandra Castillo views Indigenous art inside the still-under-construction Sealaska Heritage Plaza campus building during her visit to Juneau on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Empire Juneau)


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