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GUEST OPINION: Alaska contractor responds to Wine Train story, editorial

Your Sunday front-page story about the Napa Valley Flood Control Project ("Economic boon or boondoggle?") and the Tuesday editorial ("Off track") included a number of inaccuracies about Suulutaaq, the prime contractor on the project, its management, Alaska Native corporations and the project's benefits to the city of Napa.

The article (by Lance Williams from California Watch) stated that Suulutaaq is an Alaskan Native Corporation that "landed" a $54 million Stimulus-funded construction contract in Napa; employs an untrustworthy and unqualified executive to oversee that project; and has created only 12 jobs while performing little of the actual work.

The current phase of the Napa Valley Flood Control Project is a 2?-year construction effort to reduce flooding in the city of Napa. It requires replacement of three railroad bridges blocking flood waters, raising two city streets, moving tracks and building retention walls to protect homes and businesses from flooding.

Napa Valley Wine Train

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The implication that Suulutaaq is reaping $20 million in unearned profit is simply not true. Suulutaaq is spending the majority of the contract funds on services, supplies and labor from an area within 50 miles of Napa. This project not only protects the citizens of Napa from costly flooding, it also directly supports the Napa community by injecting millions of dollars into the local economy.

Alaskan Native corporations were created by the U.S. Congress as part of the Alaskan Native Settlement Act in 1971, under which Alaskan Natives surrendered rights to 375 million acres in exchange for 44 million acres, a one-time payment of $462 million and $500 million in mineral revenues. Those funds went to 13 regional and 220-plus village corporations, representing approximately 80,000 Native Alaskans. (In other words, the federal government paid $2.90 an acre, over time, for 331 million acres of both wilderness and land containing cities, military complexes, vast reserves of oil and other natural resources.)

In 1986, in response to continuing economic hardships among Alaskan Natives, the U.S. Congress passed regulations permitting Alaskan Native Corporations to participate in small business programs already established for other disadvantaged groups. They were encouraged to create profitable companies to fund cultural preservation, relieve poverty in remote villages and begin the process of bringing thousands of native shareholders into the mainstream economy.

Williams appears to think that Alaskan Native corporations should not operate outside Alaska, a view that would effectively doom their hopes for economic self-sufficiency, since the Alaskan economy — and the remote villages in particular — are not large enough to solely provide such opportunities.

While companies owned by California shareholders (and those from other states) regularly earn profits in Alaska, Williams appears to be applying a double standard when he objects to Suulutaaq's operations in California — an approach that seems designed to keep Native Alaskans trapped in a cycle of poverty. We strongly question the bias inherent in that position.

Williams' selective portrayal of Sam Boyle as president of Suulutaaq mischaracterized his management style and qualifications. When Suulutaaq's board of directors became concerned about the company's management, we asked Boyle to temporarily serve as president while we searched for a replacement. He quickly turned the company around and refocused the entire company to deliver the results we were contracted to provide. The board of directors has recently appointed a native shareholder that Boyle mentored as the new president.

In almost five years of working together, Boyle has proven that he is trustworthy, highly ethical and an extremely talented executive who works to build long-term sustainability that does not rely on acquisition preferences. The fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city of Napa are "pleased" with Suulutaaq's work speaks directly to Boyle's leadership over the past 11 months.


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