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Alaska Town Braces For Another Boom


Rapid oil and gas development can mean rapid economic growth for a small town that desperately needs it. It can also mean an influx of new people and a massive strain on roads, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. But what if you could see the boom coming and plan for it? That's exactly what the little, unincorporated Alaska town of Nikiski is doing, as it plans for a second natural gas boom. Shaylon Cochran of member station KDLL has the story.

SHAYLON COCHRAN: If everything goes to plan, construction on a new $20-plus billion liquefied natural gas plant could begin in a few years. That would give this town of 4,000 people, spread over roughly 76 square miles, a real financial shot in the arm.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Canadian bacon, pineapple, pepperoni-bacon, pepperoni-sausage...

COCHRAN: One of the few places to grab a bite for lunch in Nikiski is Charlie's Pizza. Steve Chamberlain is the owner. He's been here for almost 20 years, and generally he supports the kind of oil and gas industry that Nikiski is known for. But he doesn't want to see the bust part of the business cycle happen again.

STEVE CHAMBERLAIN: It is big news. It's big news in the sense that we need to - we need to watch how they do it or we need to make sure they're prepared for it.

COCHRAN: They are the oil industry and state government. What Chamberlain and other business owners want is to feel a deeper level of commitment to the area from both.

CHAMBERLAIN: I'm excited about the oil industry and the pipeline coming here. But like I said, it just - it has to be done responsibly. And I'm going to be watching. I'm going to be watching very closely.

COCHRAN: All of that investment, all of those workers and the money they'll spend sounds great, says Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. He's also watching closely. He grew up around here and saw the first energy boom four decades ago. That's when ConocoPhillips started exporting liquefied natural gas from Alaska. Now with partners BP, TransCanada, ExxonMobil and the state, it's hoping to build another much bigger one.

MIKE NAVARRE: Well, with population growth comes cost for public safety and education and solid waste and all kinds of things that the Borough provides for its residents. Somebody has to pay for that.

COCHRAN: He wants that somebody to be ConocoPhillips and its partners, collectively known as the Alaska LNG Project. For their part, the oil companies say they're still designing and studying everything, and construction is at least a few years away. That gives Navarre and other local leaders time to plan. They're making sure that whatever tax structure is worked out doesn't leave their little towns holding the bill for all those services.

NAVARRE: That's what we need to plan for is make sure that we can handle the influx during construction, but that we don't overdo it based on that because we know it's going - it's going to contract a little bit after the initial construction.

FELIZ MARTINEZ: And no welders have been put to work yet or anything like that as far as building a gas pipeline, so we're not going to hold our breath for that part.

COCHRAN: That's Felix Martinez. He owns the M&M Market. He says for this thing to really work and be a benefit long-term, people are going to have to invest in Nikiski the way he did.

MARTINEZ: My father-in-law wouldn't sell me this store unless I invested in the community and lived here and had a house. And he said you're not going to take from this community and live somewhere else. He said that's not the way that he felt comfortable with selling me the store.

COCHRAN: Like a lot of residents, Martinez wants Nikiski to have the same thing other towns have - more music and athletic programs in the schools, more shops, more restaurants and more buy-in from people willing to make Nikiski home like they did. For NPR News, I'm Shaylon Cochran in Nikiski, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylon Cochran