Petersburg’s waterfront in 2019 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Businesses in Petersburg responding to an annual survey say they lost nearly half of their revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic and laid off nine percent of their workforce.

32 local business leaders responded to the survey this spring compiled by consultant Rain Coast Data for Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization. The annual effort also gauges the business climate in other communities and looks for trends, even before the global pandemic.

“This has really been an accurate and really well-used tool over the years,” said Southeast Conference executive director Robert Venables. “So it’s something that allows us to really take the temperature of where things are and the private sector makes their investments and creates their jobs based on the good information they have at hand and I think this is one of those tools in their tool box that helps them make those decisions. And that’s what we’re really looking for is how do we not only retain jobs but create new jobs in the region and get the economy back on its feet.”

Business leaders were asked how they view the overall business climate. Most Petersburg businesses have responded with poor or very poor, before and during the pandemic as well as this year. Rain Coast Data director Meilani Schijvens said Petersburg businesses had a more pessimistic outlook than their colleagues in other Southeast communities going into last year.

“There was actually a lot of optimism going into 2020 across the region due to the projection of high cruise ship passenger numbers but Petersburg was pretty negative going into it,” Schijvens said. “So clearly Petersburg knew what was going on a little bit, had a better handle on the outlook than anybody else. And so we’ve been able see how Petersburg dealt with the pandemic and how it is coming back sort of comparatively to the rest of the communities.”

Petersburg respondents to this survey are among the more optimistic in Southeast in 2021. That’s mainly because Petersburg hasn’t seen economic losses from the pause on large cruise ship travel and there’s some improvement in the main local industry, seafood.

However, Petersburg businesses report a decline in revenue of 48 percent from the pandemic, a little higher than the regionwide response, 42 percent. Some 11 percent of local businesses say there are at risk of closing. 13 percent expect to make more workforce cuts because of the pandemic.

The report also notes businesses, organizations and the tribal government received a combined total of just over 36 million dollars from five sources of economic aid. 79 percent of Petersburg businesses responding said they received a grant or loan under one of those programs. Schijvens said over half said emergency money is still needed to replace lost revenue from the last year.

“It’s the shutdowns due to COVID, it’s the loss of the visitor industry, passengers and tourists coming to the area,” she explained. “It’s the hit that the seafood industry took. 2020 as you know was just a really terrible year in Southeast Alaska for our seafood. And we’ve gotten, especially in Petersburg, we’ve gotten a lot of comments regarding the impact of less ferry service to the community and how that’s impacting, especially Petersburg businesses that are more reliant on those independent tourists that do utilize the ferry more.”

Support for the ferry system is the original focus for Southeast Conference and the organization has it as one of four priority objectives in a five-year economic plan published this spring. Other priorities are mariculture development, marketing the region to attract more visitor spending and promoting beneficial electrification.

Petersburg assembly member Dave Kensinger said this week the Southeast Conference survey shows the impact of the pandemic year and highlights the importance of the visitor season.

“I think the thing that a lot of us don’t realize is how dependent some of our smaller businesses are on the tourist industry,” Kensinger said on a radio show Monday. “I know fishing’s a big business here in town but a lot of the small retail businesses in town are definitely dependent upon tourists and hopefully we get a few more tourists coming to town this summer and that will maybe alleviate some of that problem.”

Southeast Conference’s annual meeting this year is September 14-16 in Haines. Business and community leaders will be reviewing the latest survey and economic information there.