Wrangell’s incoming borough manager is a longtime Alaskan with economic-development experience. And while she won’t start work for about two months, she’s planning for her new job.
Lisa Von Bargen is leaving Valdez, with a population of almost 4,000, and moving to Wrangell, with about 2,300 residents.
She said she prefers working in small local governments.
“When you get into a larger community, you tend to be a little bit more specialized, even as a manager or a department head. And when you’re in a small community, you really have the ability to make a difference on a very comprehensive level,” she said.
Von Bargen begins as Wrangell Borough manager mid-July. She’s spent about 16 years working for the city of Valdez and is its community and economic development director.
She said her most significant accomplishment is creation of a comprehensive economic development program. She said the aim is to diversify, in part to compensate for reduced state and federal funding.
“Even though the sky is not falling here in Valdez, it’s important to make sure that the economy is as strong as it can be across all facets. Whether it’s small business right up to the oil industry, I think our economic diversification commission is well-positioned to move into doing that,” she said.
She said she understands Wrangell faces more economic challenges than Valdez, which is the southern terminus of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Von Bargen recognizes the potential of Wrangell’s vacant mill and boarding school sites, as well as new municipal land that came with borough formation. She’s also interested in further developing the community’s maritime economy, including boat repair.
But she’s not ready to go into specifics.
“I hate the idea of coming in and saying, ‘Oh, we can do this or we can do that,’ without having significant background behind me to actually speak in detail to the issues,” she said.
She said she’s already talked to the Wrangell Assembly about dealing with cuts in state and federal funding. And she’s interested in capital project options tied to the Trump administration’s infrastructure-improvement initiative.
But she said local government needs to be flexible.
“Looking at opportunities for the future, I think Alaska communities are probably going to have to try to look to the private sector to assist in types of public-private partnerships,” she said.
Von Bargen said Wrangell interested her, in part, because it’s a place she can get around. A car accident 10 years ago left her with limited mobility. But she fishes and enjoys the outdoors as much as she can.
She said she works hard. But she also wants to volunteer, join local organizations and otherwise participate in life outside her job.
“I think it’s important that a manager or any community member, be involved to the maximum degree possible because that’s what makes the fabric of a community move forward,” she said.
Lisa Von Bargen was one of two borough manager finalists the assembly interviewed in March.
The previous manager, Jeff Jabusch, announced his retirement last fall. Wrangell Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore is filling in until Von Bargen arrives.