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Anchorage Nonprofits Could Struggle Even As City Sees Strong Economic Forecast

Published On: Jan 29 2014 05:41:00 PM AKST

Not too long ago, Daniel Diamond spent his days away from work with huge leather pelts stretched across his bedroom floor.

“That’s where I made stuff, which is pretty pathetic. This hide here is 33 feet,” Diamond said, pointing to a maroon brown bison hide that made its way up from Montana.

Diamond hammers, stitches and tools leather into belts, wallets, purses and whatever else people want in a word-of-mouth business that keeps him busy all winter.

Instead of shuffling around furniture and struggling to focus, Diamond is now among the couple dozen creative types that lease space at Anchorage Community Works, based in a nondescript gray warehouse at the edge of Ship Creek that is backed by an affiliated nonprofit.

Diamond is exactly the type of person the founders of ACW had in mind when they had the idea for the organization a couple years ago.

“We’re trying to provide the physical space people need to create,” said Brooklyn Baggett, one of the people behind the project. “There’s been quite a need for artists to have studio space but also small businesses to have space to work out of.”  

Baggett and Diamond said the Anchorage arts community has been growing and thriving in recent years, in part because of support from nonprofit organizations.

At the Dena’ina Center on Tuesday -- while a couple thousand people tied to an array of business sectors and community interests were shuffling around with business cards and briefcases -- Melissa Banker donned a starkly different wardrobe.

She wore a fur hat – “weasel, or something” – and a dress of sorts made of locally-grown cow parsnip, recycled packing paper and moss. The outfit was a holdover from the Object Runway fashion show, a project of the International Gallery of Contemporary Art that recently put on its annual sell-out show at Bear Tooth Theaterpub.

"Mostly people smile, they want to conect with the costume," Banker said. "They want to touch the materials, to know what I'm doing."

The crowd at the Dena'ina was gathered to discuss the outlook of the city's economy for the next year, with a presentation put on by Anchorage Economic Development Corporation CEO Bill Popp.

For the most part, things are looking up, and the city continues to thrive in the face of a national downturn.

"On the job front, we're going to see about 1,200 new jobs created in Anchorage," Popp said, detailing the corporation's projection for 2014. "If you take away what we're projecting in government losses, we're projecting about 1,600 jobs in Anchorage."

Every sector from construction to oil and gas to travel and leisure is on the upswing. The projected job growth is slightly more modest than earlier forecasts, but Anchorage has added jobs each year since the start of the recession in 2009, and unemployment averaged 4.9 percent last year compared to a bleak national picture.

While most is well, the fifth consecutive year of shrinking government is a low note with downsides that extend beyond employment figures: many of the state's nonprofit organizations, particularly ones that rely heavily on federal and state grants, are at risk according to Popp and various nonprofit groups.

"There's growing concern about how many nonprofits there are in our state versus the ever-reducing revenue streams that there are for nonprofits," Popp said, adding that a precipitous decline is expected within the next few years if oil and gas revenue continues to dry up. 

The trend could hit organizations that support local arts, provide food and shelter for people in need and help animals, along with the countless many other services provided by the state's 7,000-plus nonprofit organizations.

State-based organizations with national affiliations are better positioned, Ivy Spohnholz of the Salvation Army Alaska said.

Salvation Army, Red Cross and Boys and Girls Club have recognizable brands and provide well-known services

"It does make our job easier, but not easy," Spohnholz said. "There's not enough money to support everyone."

That means organizations will likely pursue more fundraising dollars, which compose some 20 percent of money given to Alaska nonprofits, according to the Foraker Group. There has been over the past few years and will likely continue to be consolidation of organizations and some closures.

Organizations that do not lean heavily on grants from various levels of government will have an easier path forward, according to the Foraker Group. Anchorage Community Works, for example, is membership based and would only pursue grants as supplemental. 

But the bottom line for most organizations is simple, Spohnholz said: in order to keep alive the groups that help people and make the community unique, people will need to step up and put their money behind projects they believe in. 

"It’s going to be incumbent on all of us as individuals to act and help our neighbors," she said.

Daniel Diamond, who uses space at the Ship Creek warehouse, said he hopes the community gets behind important projects: "This place is amazing, I don't know where I'd be without it."