By Steve Haagenson
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective
FAIRBANKS — Starting a new business involves a coordination of people to orchestrate a symphony of resources. Resources for loans to get the business started, a business plan and documents showing the purpose and need of the business, a product to sell, an identified customer base to sell to, employees and finally a marketing plan to let everyone know you exist.
Since 2012, the volunteers and staff of the Interior Gas Utility have developed a business plan and purpose to bring natural gas to the community addressing high energy costs and poor air quality. They have applied for and received more than $37 million in low-interest loans, identified customers in the “triangle of death” who are getting hit with a double whammy of high energy costs and poor air quality and began marketing the utility to demonstrate the vitality of the organization, and the commitment to Fairbanks North Star Borough residents. The pieces are beginning to come together to form a dream this community has had for quite some time.
In this case, now is the time to make the dream a reality. That is what the IGU is doing now, with 80 miles of pipe delivered to Fairbanks for installation, beginning clearing work in the rights of ways in Phase 1 and construction contracts ready to start.
It’s true there are still unknowns in this project. Big unknowns. Questions such as “where is the gas going to come from?” and “how will residents even be able to afford it?” are legitimate concerns, and the people working on these issues are from the Interior and the best in the state. These answers are still undefined but are coming as fast as they can because they are doing it right.
Since June 2014, IGU has held four public meetings, the last on February 25 concerning rights of way, participated in three public meetings with the Interior Energy Project and two with the Division of Air Quality. We have amassed an electronic newsletter subscriber list of more than 500 addresses, and grown a Facebook account to nearly 500 followers. We have bid and awarded at least five contracts worth more than $1 million each, accounting for approximately 165 construction jobs.
Within the next 18 months, contracting for design engineering firms, construction cost estimators, right of way agents, permitting specialists, environmental scientists and survey teams is forecast to employ between 35 to 40 additional professionals. The project is further expected to support 260 local jobs, of which 240 are indirectly supported at other Fairbanks North Star Borough businesses — namely in the heart of North Pole.
We work closely with the Interior Delegation, City of North Pole, Road Commissioners, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The governor has repeatedly stated the Interior Energy Project is one of two main priorities. We post notices every other week about board meetings, and run advertisements any time we hold a public meeting. We have made presentations to countless community and political groups and are active members of the Fairbanks and North Pole Chambers of Commerce.
This winter, we worked with the North Pole wrestling team to hang IGU brochures. We have written articles and been mentioned in numerous local, statewide and national print, radio, television and online stories. We are working with the school district to educate families about safety around construction as we plan to turn first dirt in May. And we recently added staff to knock on more doors in the Phase 1 area every day to personally notify residents of clearing work in their neighborhood. We have used every available outlet to communicate using the limited resources and funds available from a state loan.
The IGU is a growing municipal utility and, as with any start up, there are going to be some bumps along the road. As a subsidiary of the borough, IGU has prioritized being transparent, sensitive to feedback and open to suggestions of how we can do better to deliver an affordable energy solution. These processes will become refined as we grow with the community to deliver affordable natural gas to as many people possible, as soon as possible. We ask for your participation and welcome your suggestions.
The next public meeting will be held on April 14 at the North Pole library from 4-7 p.m. There will be presentations at 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. on the upcoming pipe installation phase, opportunities to ask questions and informational handouts. We hope to see you there.
Steve Haagenson is the general manager of the Interior Gas Utility. He lives in Fairbanks.