April 12-15, 2015, Osijek, Croatia

Fostering the ICT Ecosystem

Senator Begich's Remarks for the Brown Forum

U.S. Senator Mark Begich remarks

The Ron Brown Forum

April 2, 2012; Opatija, Croatia

(Slide 1: Capitol introduction)
Thank you, Minister Pusic, for the kind introduction. Thanks for the invitation to this important forum.

Ron Brown was a tireless economic development leader – and also a great political mind for our nation. Thank you for honoring his memory with this Forum.

I realize I’ve been invited here as a United States senator – the only one in the Senate of Croatian background. But before I went to Washington, D.C., I had a job where I actually got things done instead of just talking about it.

(Slide 2: Welcome to Anchorage)

As the two-term mayor of Anchorage, we helped direct the most robust era of growth in a generation for Alaska’s largest city.

I left the mayor’s office with a more prosperous local economy, millions of dollars worth of new public facilities and nearly 100 additional police officers.

In late 2008, as I was moving to the Senate and the world economy began to decline, two national publications – the Wall Street Journal and Business Week – pointed to Anchorage as a rare oasis of financial stability.

As I say to my Senate colleagues who worked in local government: once a mayor – always a mayor. There’s nothing I love more than talking about water and sewer, local tax rates and fixing pot holes!

I’m thrilled to be back in Croatia for just the second time. A century ago, a 17-year-old farmer by the name of John Begic left the family farm in a small Croatian village for opportunity in the United States. He was my grandfather, who eventually made his home in Minnesota.

(Slide 3: Nick Begich)

His son - my father - ventured to America’s new frontier of Alaska before it even was a state. He was an educator before he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1970. I’m honored to follow in his footsteps.

From the time of my election to the Senate four years ago, the people of Croatia have treated me as a long-lost son. I love reminding my press secretary that I get better coverage in the Croatian press than my own hometown newspapers back in Alaska!

(Slide 4: Balkan country map)

When I was invited to this Brown Forum, I jumped at the opportunity for several reasons.

First, on behalf of the U.S. government, I want to commend the people of Croatia and this entire region for your enormous progress and great partnerships with my country. The countries of Southeast Europe have made enormous strides since the end of the devastating war less than two decades ago. Several are European Union and/or NATO members, or in the process to those important memberships. I thank you for your contributions on the international stage helping provide security and stability across the globe.

(Slide 5: Croatia Summit)

The second reason I wanted to return here for this Forum is the enormous potential I see for this region. When I was here for the Dubrovnik Summit last July – admittedly just for a few days – I was enormously impressed by natural beauty and rich history, but especially by the enthusiasm of the region’s leaders.

You know far better than me the challenges you face making the painful transition from a government-directed economy to one that’s market-based. I know that many of the regions represented at this conference face unacceptably high unemployment rates, burdensome bureaucracies, dated industries and the fallout of the international economic downturn.

Yet as we say in the United States, all politics is local. I’m a firm believer that the government which is closest to the people is the most effective – and most accountable. I’m also a firm believer that local and regional governments are best positioned to work with public and private partners to lead their communities to prosperity.

So I’m pleased to share some of my experience of 20 years in local government, with the added perspective I now have as a federal official.

(Slide 6: Anchorage diversity)

Let me start with a little context. Anchorage is home to about 40 percent of our state’s entire population – about 275,000 people.

It’s one of the most culturally diverse cities in America, with over 90 different languages spoken by the students in our school district. I checked the list and that includes Albanian, Bosnian and Croatian.

(Slide 7: Anchorage airport)

It’s a major transportation hub, serving not only the rest of the state but as an international cargo center.

Every single week, about 600 international wide-body cargo jets use Anchorage International Airport to move goods between Asia, Europe and the Lower 48 United States.

When I became mayor in 2003, we inherited one of the worst financial crises in a generation, with a $33 million budget gap. Addressing that required painful and politically unpopular choices. But even more troubling was a lack of direction for the city.

Voters had rejected initiatives to invest in the community, so our business community was reluctant to expand. Anchorage was just treading water.

(Slide 8: Firefighters)

So we focused on four broad areas which I believe have application in any community or region - and hopefully to yours:

We identified our strengths and weaknesses;
We capitalized on our city’s place in our region, state and on the international scene;
We identified partners to help grow and diversify the city; and
We kept a focus on delivering basic services cost-effectively.

Let me elaborate on each on these.

(Slide 9: Anchorage diversity)

First, before convincing the public to dip into their own pockets to pay for investments or to ask the private sector to expand, we tried to identify what was good about Anchorage and not so good – our strengths and weaknesses.

We started this process even before I actually became mayor. Anchorage has a four-month window between the city election and when the new mayor takes office. So we launched the most extensive transition process in city history, asking hundreds of residents to look at every single city department.

The benefits were two-fold: they identified many problems which needing addressing, and it helped invest hundreds of citizens in our city’s well-being.

Once in office, I operated as if my campaign for mayor had never ended. I accepted hundreds of offers to speak to different groups, from Girl Scouts to oil company executives. I wanted to hear from average residents what was on their mind.

My chief of staff, who is with me on this trip, gave me a hard time about speaking at elementary schools. Until I reminded him that those students would soon be voters – and their parents were already!

(Slide 10: Building demolition)

Several times a year I piled my department heads into a bus and we traveled to the far reaches of our community to take City Hall to the people. For several hours, we met with residents to answer their questions and explain our initiatives.We also worked with business and civic groups to hear their concerns.

The result of this effort to identify Anchorage’s strengths and weaknesses were telling. Anchorage is the headquarters for the major oil companies which operate in our state, but their employees demand a high quality of life and good schools.

Each year thousands of tourists pass through our city to see Alaska’s grandeur, but too often spend little time or money in Anchorage. Anchorage has a broad tax base to pay for services, but it was too heavily weighted toward individual property owners instead of businesses.

We acted on each of those findings to adopt new city policies and laws to correct the shortcomings.

(Slide 11: Anchorage scenic)

For example, we changed tax policy by asking voters to approve a plan to make the system fairer to homeowners. The result was a balanced city budget which prompted bond rating agencies to upgrade the city’s financial health, saving taxpayers money.

For our tourism industry – which is one of our biggest employers – we worked with our local convention and visitors’ bureau and the visitor sector. We spent months coming up with a new brand for the city and energized this sector of our economy.

(Slide 12: Big Wild Life logo)

Our new brand is: Big Wild Life. It speaks to the city’s enormity. It speaks to the wildlife, like moose and bears which you can see in Anchorage regularly. And it speaks to the Alaskan lifestyle, which is so envious to many visitors to our state.

My point here is that we made an on-going assessment of what was working in our city and what wasn’t, and tried to make improvements to address the results of that assessment. You have to ask tough questions, constantly keep your finger on the pulse of your residents and convey a vision about where you want to go.

Our second broad area of focus was to capitalize on our city’s place in our region, state and on the international scene.

(Slide 13: Anchorage Port)

About 40 percent of Alaska’s population lives in Anchorage, which serves as the commercial and transportation hub for the entire state. About 90 percent of all the consumer goods coming into Alaska – everything from baby formula to pickup trucks – comes through the Port of Anchorage, a city-owned and operated facility.

(Slide 14: Native people)

The state of Alaska is very large – 16 times the size of Croatia. And it’s home to about 200 widely dispersed small communities, most of them reachable only by small airplane, boat or snow machine.

Most of these communities are populated by Alaska Native people, whose first language is not English. Those Alaskans travel to Anchorage for medical care, groceries and business.

(Slide 15: Military)

Anchorage also houses two major military bases, which account for 25,000 servicemen and woman and about as many family members. And because the state of Alaska has more military veterans per person of any state in America, Anchorage’s vet population is also significant.

So as we recognized those demographic facts in the mayor’s office, we embarked on many initiatives.

(Slide 16: Road dedication)

For example, to better move traffic through the city’s congested roads, we asked voters to approve local bonds – essentially a modest property tax increase. Combined with state and federal funds, we invested nearly $300 million into road improvements, and created hundreds of jobs at the same time.

(Slide 17: Port of Anchorage)

We undertook the largest expansion of the Port is city history. In addition to all those consumer goods that come into our port, the Army uses it to transport equipment to troublespots like Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Slide 18: Dena’ina Center)

To make our city more inviting to locals, other Alaska residents and visitors to our state, we invested in two major projects.

The first was construction of a new civic and convention center for local events as well as to attract international conventions. Just two years before I became mayor, voters had rejected paying for a new convention center. So asking them to reconsider was not something my political advisors thought was very smart for a new mayor.

But we ran an aggressive campaign to demonstrate its benefits and voters said yes - by the smallest of margins.

Just two years later, we completed a spectacular $111 million new center and named it in honor of the original Native people of our region – the Dena’ina. Today the Dena’ina Center is exceeding financial projections and is wildly supported by residents and visitors alike.

(Slide 19: Anchorage Museum)

The second major construction project we won voter approval for was a $100 million expansion of our museum. This partnership between the private sector, state and federal governments and Anchorage taxpayers attracts visitors from across the globe. Let me make one other point about capitalizing on our place in the world.

(Slide 20: Korea sister-city)

Anchorage is truly an international crossroads. Just as President Obama stopped in Anchorage last week to refuel for his trip to South Korea, we have international visitors regularly.

I made it a point to personally greet many of those presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors to boast about my city.

We also strongly recruited national and international organizations to hold their meetings in Anchorage, such as the federation of mayors from northern cities across the world. That’s not only big business for our community, but it put Anchorage on the world map.

(Slide 21: Anchorage scenic)

Our third broad area of focus was recruiting partners to help grow and diversify our city.

To me, there are two basic reasons to bring in partners with governments at any level. First and most basic is that you bring new resources in. Everybody looks for efficiencies in delivering government services so the most cost-effectively you can do it, the better. And second, bringing in partners for government programs and services helps build public support.

Let me give three quick examples of the many partnerships we used.

(Slide 22: Egan Center)

I mentioned our new convention center. That wasn’t financed with city money at all.

Like most American cities, we levy a tax on the visitors who stay in our hotels. To help pay for the new center, voters approved a modest increase in that tax. A portion of that tax goes to our Convention and Visitors’ Bureau to help recruit additional visitors to our city. So by structuring the convention center financing the way we did, the entire visitor industry had a stake in its success.

On top of that, we demanded of the private sector developers that they personally were on the line for any convention cost-overruns. Fortunately for them and us, the new center was built early and on-budget.

(Slide 23: Trail Watch)

My next example helped improve Anchorage’s public safety. Our city has a fabulous trail system – several hundred miles of trails used by runners, bikers and walkers in the summer and by skiers in the winter.

To keep those trails safe, we launched a new initiative called Trail Watch. We asked trail users to volunteer to take a class on trail safety and we asked some of the oil companies headquartered in Anchorage to kick in a little money to pay for Trail Watch armbands and to help staff a headquarters building.

The result is hundreds of volunteers clearly identified as Trail Watchers who patrol our trails to make them safer. We’ve even had lives saved during medical emergencies.

(Slide 24: Deborah with military)

My last example of public-private partnerships is something my wife initiated and led. I noted our city’s large military presence. In fact, 10 percent of all the American troops in Afghanistan today come from Alaska bases.

My wife’s father served in Vietnam and she remembers the challenges faced by families with a soldier serving in harm’s way. So Deborah founded an initiative to help care and provide for our city’s military families. Businesses all over Anchorage contributed funds to help pay for things from day care to knitting mittens and hats to provide a little something to these lonely families. Her initiative was so successful it won a national award for Best Use of Community Volunteers.

When it comes to partnering with private companies for economic development, American cities and states are very competitive. To aggressively recruit companies to locate in our communities, we offer everything from tax incentives to providing factory sites already equipped with utilities.

Right now in the Alaska Legislature, our governor wants to reduce taxes on the international oil companies which operate in our state to they will increase oil production and create more jobs. You need to be cautious that taxpayers benefit from any deals provided to private companies.

(Slide 25: construction)

The final area of focus I’ll discuss today is the most fundamental for any level of government - delivering basic services cost-effectively. Taxpayers want to know that the money they pay to the city, regional or central government is being spent wisely and they’re getting good value in return.

Here I’ll mention a couple of examples.

One of the big complaints we heard early on was from contractors who wanted to build new homes or business buildings. Every public official loves building stuff: it creates jobs and provides a tax base.

Our builders complained it was taking way too long to obtain city permits for their projects – the bureaucracy was just too burdensome. We agreed. So we restructured our permit operation and actually increased the fees for city permits. In turn, what developers got was a staff person assigned to their project to guide it all the way through the permitting process – a one-stop-shop.

One of the results was the biggest building boom in Anchorage since the 1980s.

Another example is one I mentioned to Ambassador Foley when he we met in Washington two weeks ago which illustrates regional cooperation.

(Slide 26: Anchorage firefighters)

To Anchorage’s north and south are two large population centers known in Alaska as boroughs – similar to counties in most of the rest of America. They have different forms of local government than Anchorage, are more rural and were headed by elected officials of different political stripes than me.

But we faced many similar issues. So we formed what we called the Tri-Borough Commission, composed of the mayors of these three regional governments. We met about every three months and cooperated on issues from emergency communications to public health.

One spring the borough to Anchorage’s north suffered from severe flooding. It ran low on resources to deal with the flooding and called out for help. As a result of the agreements we had established through the Tri-Borough Commission, Anchorage quickly dispatched trucks loaded with equipment to the flooded areas.

Even though the problems were outside our city boundaries, we didn’t worry about payments or permits. We just rushed to help provide relief. It was a great example of how to work successfully across political and geographic boundaries.

(Slide 27: Anchorage scenic)

As you can tell, I love talking about problem-solving at the local level. There’s nothing more rewarding than evaluating a problem, bringing resources to bear and seeing results quickly.
That’s not a process that occurs regularly in the United State Senate. But I have tried to use some of the lessons I learned as mayor in my current position.

I try to understand the circumstances of other senators and what they face in their own states. I work across political parties to advocate for solutions that work regardless of the politics. And with the budget problems facing my country, we’re always mindful to try to deliver basic services cost-effectively.

I hope some of my experiences have been useful to you in your regions. I look forward to continuing working with the great nations of Southeast Europe. I thank you again for your partnerships with my country.