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Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Since the first colonists from the Lower 48 arrived in the Matanuska Valley in 1935 and began carving farms out of forested wilderness, this area north of Anchorage has been known for its ability to help feed the rest of the state. Potatoes, cabbage, squash, carrots and a host of other vegetables thrive on the rich soil and long summer days.

Although many of the original 204 families who participated in the resettlement program weren't cut out for farming, new families signed on and, for better or worse, the New Deal colony took root and grew. Land was cleared and homes were built. Schools, shops and a generating plant were added, as was a bustling farmers' cooperative. In addition to produce, the area also supported great dairy farms, although in recent years economic changes, including Outside competition, have whittled this once-thriving industry to a fraction of its former size.

Of the borough's two dominant communities, Palmer has long been considered the older, more established of the two, where farming and a no-frills way of life could be found. Wasilla, its cousin to the west, is seen as a member of a younger generation, its highway lined with shopping malls and fast-food restaurants.

As Anchorage grew, so did the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Many who work in the state's largest city choose to live in the valleys to the north, commuting up to 90 miles round-trip. The Valley, as the Matanuska and Susitna river valleys have been jointly labeled, thus has become somewhat of a bedroom community, providing many Alaskans the best of both worlds: access to wide-open spaces and outdoor activities, plus the jobs and other amenities that come with living near a big city. Within the borough, various levels of government and the trade and service industries provide the bulk of the area's jobs.

In recent years, borough planning and economic development officials have been working to sow the seeds of a tourism industry they hope will take root and flourish. A ski resort at Hatcher Pass, a lodge at Denali State Park and other facilities to attract overnight visitors are reoccurring themes.

"If you can't keep people overnight, you're not rotating the dollars," says John Loyd, chairman of the borough's Overall Economic Development Commission. "You're not a destination point. People just come through and buy sandwiches on their way north."

Making the area attractive to industry also is a priority. Supporters of a plan to build a $15 million deep-water port say the facility will go a long way toward luring industry to the area.

But Loyd says community leaders need to identify what it will take to maintain employment in the Valley itself and to stem the flow of commuters into Anchorage: "Will it take land? Will it take money? Planning?" These are issues with which he and others grapple. Housing costs are lower than in Anchorage, and many borough residents find the quality of life more to their liking; but, says Loyd, there has to be gainful employment for folks once they've moved to the area.

Loyd believes the borough holds great development potential. Brit Lively, executive director of the Palmer Economic Development Authority, agrees and says it makes sense for the borough's two largest communities to work together to attract new businesses. Lively points to the Wishbone Hill coal mining project outside Palmer as an example of a venture that will benefit the entire borough by providing more than 200 jobs.

A 1989 report by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social & Economic Research also spoke of the borough's development possibilities. "Potential exists for development of tourism, mining, agriculture, forestry and transportation as basic industries in the region," the report reads.

Loyd and his colleagues hope to turn those findings into reality.


Between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago, a band of Athabascan Indians who called themselves Dena'ina, or "the people," settled in Southcentral Alaska. Their range was enormous and extended up into the Matanuska and Susitna river drainages. Eventually, the Dena'ina became involved in fur trading, acting as middlemen between Russian fur traders and interior Indians. Their involvement in trading continued after Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867.

In later years, gold was discovered in the region, and the town of Knik became an important commercial center. Railroad construction to Palmer and through to Talkeetna, and gold mines and coal mining near Sutton brought growth to the Valley, but perhaps nothing influenced the area's development quite like the 1935 birth of the Matanuska Colony.

Beginning in May 1935, 204 families from the Lower 48 resettled in the Matanuska Valley under a plan to turn the wilderness into farmland. The government-sponsored project led to the building of homes, clearing of land and the harvesting of crops. Schools, churches and shops were built, as was a bustling farmers' cooperative in Palmer. Many of the original families were not suited to the rigors of farming in Alaska and so left the project. Others joined and helped the area develop into a rich agricultural center known for its hearty crops and dairy farms.

In more recent years, the Valley, particularly Wasilla and Palmer, has grown substantially and has become home to thousands of workers who live there but who commute to Anchorage to work. Between 1980 and 1990, the Mat-Su borough was one of the nation's fastest-growing communities.


The Mat-Su borough stretches across 23,000 square miles and draws its name from the Matanuska and Susitna rivers, remnants of the ice rivers that carved these fertile valleys thousands of years ago. The Valley contains the Yentna and Skwenta rivers, as well as hundreds of lakes, ponds and streams, many chock-full of sport fish.

The area contains a cross section of Alaska -- from Anchorage to Denali National Park -- and is roughly bounded on the east and south by the Chugach Mountains, on the north by the Talkeetna Mountains and on the west and north by the Alaska Range. At 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley often is visible from the Valley. Numerous glaciers, including the Matanuska and the Knik, also lie within the borough.


Because the borough is so vast, weather conditions vary depending on location. Residents in the northern stretches contend with colder winters, deeper snow and warmer summers than do residents of the borough's main population centers of Palmer and Wasilla.

In the southern region:

* Average January temperature range is 4 degrees to 23 degrees F.

* Average July temperature range is 47 degrees to 68 degrees F.

* Average annual precipitation is about 17 inches.

In many ways, the Valley serves as a buffer between the relatively moderate weather along Cook Inlet and the more severe weather to the north. For this reason, the borough's weather is considered transitional.


The borough had a 1990 work force of some 15,700 individuals with 2,095 of them counted as unemployed. Approximately 28 percent of the borough's work force commutes to Anchorage, while another 10 percent works elsewhere in the state, including the North Slope. The wages of borough residents commuting into Anchorage constitute the borough's top source of income. Second is the spinoff created by the state's oil industry.

Within the borough, federal, state and local governments provide the greatest number of jobs, followed by the trade and service industries. Although long considered one of the state's major agricultural centers, no one tracks agriculture-related jobs in the area. What is counted, however, is the estimated value of selected agricultural products. In 1990, the estimated value of the area's crops was placed at nearly $8.8 million -- three-quarters of the statewide total of $12.5 million.

Palmer, Wasilla and Houston all have industrial parks. Major development plans within the borough include:

* Construction of a $15 million federal job corps training center in Palmer that will employ about 60 people and have an annual, revolving student enrollment of 200.

* Construction of the $40 million to $50 million Wishbone Hill coal mine outside Palmer to employ more than 200.

* Development of a $15 million deep-water port at Point MacKenzie.

Also, discussion continues over developing a ski resort at Hatcher Pass and a lodge and visitor center in Denali State Park.


As they have for much of the century, Palmer and Wasilla continue to serve as the borough's commercial and administrative centers. Although other communities offer basic services, the major retail outlets, banks, hospitals, government services and major recreation facilities are located in the Palmer/Wasilla area. Borough offices and a branch of the University of Alaska are located in Palmer. Land is available in and around both communities for industrial and commercial development. Despite the services now available, recent surveys indicate Valley residents want even more. Palmer residents, for example, would like to lure a bookstore, shoe store and a sporting goods outlet to town.


The Mat-Su borough experienced tremendous growth between 1980 and 1990 when the population increased from 17,816 to 39,683, making it not only the fastest-growing area of the state, but also one of the fastest-growing areas nationwide. During this same decade the borough recorded one of the state's highest number of births, a reflection of the large number of families with young children living in the borough.

Eighty percent of the borough's residents live in a core area surrounding Palmer and Wasilla. There is little ethnic diversity in the borough, with whites accounting for all but 2,734 of the total population. American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts make up the largest ethnic group and TABULAR DATA OMITTED account for 1,939 residents. Area Natives are represented by Cook Inlet Regional Corp.

According to findings of the 1990 census:

* Median age in the borough is 31.

* Thirty-five percent of the population is under age 18.

* Median value of a single family home is $71,500.

* Median income is approximately $40,000.


As a 20-year borough resident says, "We've got 'em all." Dog mushers, trappers, farmers and miners share the borough with white-collar workers, many of whom commute to Anchorage. The borough offers a full complement of schools, a branch of the university, extension services, medical and emergency services, social service agencies, senior centers, sports facilities and cultural attractions. Outdoor activities, ranging from hunting to cross-country skiing, are a way of life for many borough residents. After working in Anchorage all week, many Valley residents choose to stay close to home in their off-time.


The borough is served by the Glenn and George Parks highways, the Alaska Railroad, several trucking firms, and by private and charter planes that take off and land at the Palmer and Wasilla municipal airports and on several private landing strips and lakes. The railroad runs to Talkeetna, with a spur also feeding into the Palmer industrial park, which also is connected to the airport, easing the transfer and shipment of goods around the state.

To the relief of thousands of Valley commuters, the heavily traveled Glenn Highway connecting them with Anchorage is being widened to eight lanes. Wasilla residents are served by the George Parks Highway, which was completed in 1971 and connects Fairbanks and Anchorage via the Glenn Highway. One newspaper with local news and two daily newspapers from Anchorage serve the borough. There also is a local radio station, in addition to radio and television reception from Anchorage. Cable television is available in Palmer and Wasilla.


State researchers and several borough and civic leaders believe the borough can become a major tourist destination, and in recent years, various groups have been working toward that end. The Matanuska-Susitna Convention & Visitors Bureau was formed in 1986, and a 5-percent bed tax was levied in 1989 to raise funds supporting tourism. Approximately 220,000 borough visitors spent an estimated $28 million to $36 million in 1990.

The area is a year-round playground, offering dog mushing, cross-country skiing, snow-machining and ice fishing in the winter, and hiking, sport fishing, boating, swimming, water and jet skiing, and countless other activities in spring and summer. Climbers from around the world gather each spring and summer in Talkeetna, the staging area for expeditions up Mount McKinley. The Susitna River's Devil's Canyon offers first-class kayaking.

Thousands of visitors attend the Alaska State Fair in Palmer each August, and the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winds through the Valley each March. There are 22 state parks, including Independence Mine State Historic Park at Hatcher Pass, which draws visitors year-round. Denali State Park lies on the borough's northern edge.


The Mat-Su borough is a second-class borough with an elected mayor, a seven-member assembly and a borough administrator. The seat of government is in Palmer. Boroughwide property tax is 13 mil with additional service levies. There are three incorporated cities within the borough:

* Wasilla: First-class city; elected mayor; six-member council; city administrator. Property tax: 3.6 mil.

* Palmer: Home-rule city; elected mayor; six-member council; city manager. Property tax: 4.28 mil. Sales tax: 2 percent.

* Houston: Second-class city; seven-member council, one of whom serves as mayor. Property tax: 1.5 mil.


The state of Alaska is by far the borough's largest land owner, claiming 59 percent of the land, or more than 8.8 million acres. The federal government ranks second with 30 percent. Private land owners, Native corporations and other entities such as the university each own 3 percent of the land. The borough owns the remaining 2 percent.


Mat-Su Overall Economic Development Commission, 350 E. Dahlia, Palmer, AK 99645-6488; (907) 745-4801

Mat-Su Resource Conservation & Development, 351 W. Parks Hwy., Ste. 100, Wasilla, AK 99687; (907) 373-9050

Palmer Economic Development Authority, P.O. Box 2315, Palmer, AK 99645; (907) 745-7332

Matanuska-Susitna Convention & Visitors Bureau, HCO-1 Box 6166J21, Palmer, AK 99645; (907) 746-5000

Matanuska-Susitna Borough Offices, 350 E. Dahlia, Palmer, AK 99645-6488; (907) 745-4801

City of Wasilla, 290 E. Herning, Wasilla, AK 99687; (907) 373-9050

City of Palmer, 231 W. Evergreen Ave., Palmer, AK 99645; (907) 745-3271

City of Houston, P.O. Box 27, Houston, AK 99694; (907) 892-6869

Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce, 1801 Parks Hwy., Wasilla, AK 99687; (907) 376-1299

Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 45, Palmer, AK 99645; (907) 745-2880

Big Lake Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 520067, Big Lake, AK 99652; (907) 892-6109

Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 334, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-2330

Sutton Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 24, Sutton, AK 99674; (907) 745-4527

Houston Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 356, Houston, AK 99694; no phone
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Title Annotation:Matanuska Valley, Alaska
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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