The Last Great Frontier

The City of Fairbanks

With a unique and fascinating history, Fairbanks is home to over 100,000 individuals. Despite its relatively small population, Fairbanks boasts many world-class amenities and institutions, including a highly respected university, both Army and Air Force bases, along with countless tourist attractions to please every taste year-round.

Second only to Anchorage, Fairbanks is the most populated city in Alaska, and continues to attract new investment. For such an extremely large state, this can bring with it a host of challenges, many of them being met by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation (FEDC). Comprising of an 11-member Board of Directors and a maximum of five ex-officio members, the FEDC has been in existence for about 25 years, with Jim Dodson serving as President and Chief Executive Officer since 2005.

“Here you have a state that is 570,000 square miles, and economic development different than in the lower 48,” comments Mr. Dodson of Alaska. “Obviously it is a huge landmass of state. In that, we have about 725,000 people – very few people and very large distances. Those things that you might think of that would grow the economy in the state of Washington are not typically going to work here, namely manufacturing. I’m not going to go out and attract Boeing to build airplanes in Fairbanks, Alaska, because import of raw material and export of materials and of finished products is so expensive that it makes those type of things non-competitive. So what we do here at the FEDC is look at those things that have a reason to be anchored here in Alaska.”

Speaking with passion, Mr. Dodson is a life-long Fairbanks resident. Born and raised in the central Alaskan city, he proudly served in the U.S. Army Vietnam 5th Special Forces Group, and graduated from the University of Oregon. A successful businessman, he is active with a number of respected local, state and national business and non-profit advisory boards – such as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Civilian Advisory Board, the Governor’s Alaska Military Force Advocacy and Structure Team (AMFAST) and the State of Alaska Aviation Advisory Board. Mr. Dodson is a proud Fairbanks resident, and he and his wife Kathi have raised four children in the city. As a result, his knowledge not only of Fairbanks but the whole of Alaska is formidable – particularly his understanding of the local economy and how it fits into the broader national and global economic realities.

“I’ve been here for many years,” Mr. Dodson says. “I was here when Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, and I know all the players. I think I have a very good perspective and know what all the opportunities are, and where we stand in taking those opportunities and making them a reality. That has been part of our focus: Alaska and its natural resources and other attributes that lend themselves to a sustainable economy.”

Identifying successful endeavors

Alaska is known as a resource state, and Fairbanks plays an integral role in its success and development. Known initially as Barnette’s Cache, 1902 saw the name changed to Fairbanks, in honor of American Senator (and later Vice-President under Theodore Roosevelt) Charles Warren Fairbanks. Located on the Chena River near the junction with the Tanana River, the city boasts the Fairbanks International Airport, the Richardson Highway, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base, Denali National Park and Preserve, and more. Known worldwide for its oil exploration and production, the area’s current challenge is to take a state that relies on federal spending in oil production and make it something broader.

With weather conditions ranging from highs in January of about 2°F with very little wind and lows averaging -18°F, and an average snowfall of 10 inches per month from October through March, Fairbanks’ winter weather conditions are consistent. It sees summer season highs of 85°F, with lows of 40°F. As a result of these temperatures, it is important to focus on the areas and infrastructure that are most relevant and suitable. This includes institutions like the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), the state’s premier research institution founded in 1917. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is best known for research, innovation into the Arctic, and a focus on environmental issues, mineral extraction, and other areas relevant to the state, its climate, its industries, and its people.

“We focus on things that are anchored here, like Alaska tourism,” explains Mr. Dodson, citing another example, the Alaska blueberry. Through research conducted through the University of Alaska, it was discovered that the Alaska blueberry has 200 times more antioxidants than blueberries grown at different latitudes. “How about taking that blueberry, and creating a pharmaceutical industry around it?” says Mr. Dodson. “You can do that, but what you can’t do is take that blueberry and transplant it down to Oregon or Maine and produce the same amount of antioxidants because it is anchored here, in Alaska. Those are the types of things… if we develop, grow, and sustain this type of industry, it is going to remain here.”

With a focus on community, the mission of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation is to assist in creating new jobs and new economic opportunities for the residents of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and economic area. Through intelligence, involvement, imagination and innovation, the FEDC remains focused on setting the standard for economic growth and providing leadership in promoting investment and sustainable development for Fairbanks.

With a community that is not only dynamic and diverse, but truly unique in the world, Fairbanks is seeking like-minded individuals and businesses to create and foster employment relevant to Alaska, its climate, and its people. To focus on the success of the entire community, the FEDC concentrates its efforts on projects with the highest probability of success. As a result, projects center on a number of areas conducive to the climate, the military presence and infrastructure, and the University. These include: Energy, Cold Weather Testing, Military, Forestry / Mining and Agriculture, Rural Outreach / Regional Hub, and the Technology Led Development Program. Other projects, such as the Interior Issues Council, are also supported, along with specific economic development opportunities and community needs as they arise.

Reliable cold weather testing

With a major international airport able to handle massive planes – up to 787s – Fairbanks is fast earning a reputation worldwide as one of the best places in the United States to take on cold weather testing. It is not only dependable, but extremely consistent. “It is all of these things, and more,” states Mr. Dodson. “We obviously have very reliable cold weather testing locations which are very accessible, and compared to other cold weather testing places, it is affordable. That is a growing industry, and that has been a project of FEDC for a number of years. We market to both international and national markets, and we spend quite a bit of time growing that.”

For a wide range of companies – ranging from automobile manufacturers to airline companies, engine makers, tire companies, outdoor gear businesses and much more – it is critical that their products perform without fail. A number of companies, such as Volkswagen, have a year-round presence while others, such as Mercedes and Ford, also conduct tests in the area. Fairbanks’ weather is not only reliable; the city is able to produce charts which reveal what the weather will be like at different times of the year, so companies doing testing will be able to determine the best temperatures their products are suited for. Other operators are also able to take advantage of testing facilities in Fairbanks, where they can operate products such as cars 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to determine how well they perform in cold weather. While Fairbanks does not yet have a dedicated track for testing, the FEDC is actively seeking investors to create a track.

Strong military presence

With 38 percent of the payroll stemming from the military economy in Fairbanks, including direct and induced jobs, Fairbanks is home to the Fort Wainwright Army Base and the Eielson Air Force Base, about 25 miles east of Fairbanks. As a result, there are benefits to the area not only from military spending, but from members of the Army and Air Force purchasing homes, living in and near Fairbanks with their families, and becoming part of the community. “Having a stable military presence here offers the military an unrestricted location and a huge amount of training space,” says Mr. Dodson. “You can’t talk to somebody without hearing that Alaska is a very military friendly state, and it is; sixteen percent of Alaska’s payroll is military. Those are big numbers, and Alaska pays attention to its military. It’s not only a big deal here in Fairbanks, but it’s a big deal statewide. To the military, Alaska has huge strategic advantages because of its proximity to Europe and Asia.”

There are many reasons Fairbanks is becoming an attractive place to relocate, for businesses and families alike. With the University of Fairbanks Alaska accounting for six percent of the economy, it is in and of itself a creator of long-term jobs, and has earned a reputation as one of the leading institutions for Arctic issues, with researchers coming to the University not only from across the United States, but around the world. Additionally, Mr. Dodson predicts that the population of about 100,000 will increase by 10 to 15 percent if a gas pipeline project presently under negotiation gets the go-ahead.

“Population growth will follow resource development, because that’s where the big inroads in economic activity will come from, and that will lead to people moving to Alaska to get a better quality of life and economic success,” he shares. “My personal philosophy is the economy attracts residents, because what people need and want is success, and if you have a successful economy, you’ll have a successful population. People like to think of Alaska as the last great frontier.”

June 19, 2018, 8:17 AM EDT

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