Keep the lights on: If Santa could bring Longyearbyen one thing for Christmas? Opening mines, safe housing top wish list

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It was a perfect symbolism for Christmas in Longyearbyen in 2017 – the locals dancing and singing as they circled the town’s official tree whose lights were dark (a seemingly laugh-it-off error that turned out to be deliberate sabotage). Because the top item on the wish list of many locals comes to down to one thing: keeping the lights going at something significant where they’re being turned off.

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Norwegian TV news cameras film the (attempted) lighting of the tree ceremony in the center of Longyearbyen. The town’s struggles with the loss of nearly all coal mining jobs, loss of dozens of homes due to avanches and the risk of them, and other setbacks have received widespread coverage. Photo by Mark Sabbatini/ Icepeople.

Keep things lit at the mines. Light up homes people feel safe in. Offer a glow of hope to those uncertain about the town’s economic future. Heck, just give folks a way to cover their sky-high electricity bills during the coming year.

“We need a new owner, or something to happen, so we can keep things going at Svea,” said Anne Lise Sandvik, a resident for more than 40 years, referring to the Norwegian government’s decision not just to permanently shut down the mine it owns (and another nearby), but to dismantle the infrastructure as well so any hope of using the sites for tourism or research will be eliminated.

Sandvik was among those helping ensure a Whoville-like ending to the Grinch who filled the fusebox under the tree with snow sometime before the lighting ceremony. While the celebration went on in the dark, she retrived two long extension cables from a nearby store and helped workers reconnect the lights from afar.

It was symbolic of the many stopgap plugs, so to speak, the community has resorted to while facing an unusual number of hardships the past few years. The Norwegian government, while formally endorsing a broad expansion of local industries to help fuel a post-mining economy, is notably light in net year’s budget on supporting previously envisioned possibilities, according to many long-time locals and business leaders.

“I would say we need a new budget,” said Lasse Stener Hansen, co-owner of Pole Position Logistics, which traditionally has provided significant services to everything from mining operations to tourism. He said he agrees extending major coal mining operations should be a priority – especially since the cost of dismantling has become so much higher than originally expected it’s no longer safe to assume it’s how the government can best minimize its losses (whereas reopening the mines at least offers a potential future profit).

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Open-carry during a public Christmas celebration in Longyearbyen is nothing ususal – and nothing to worry about despite harsh economic times the town has been plagued with the past few years. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While resuming large-scale mining operations under either the government or a new owner (a proposal this month by a group of private entities to purchase Store Norske was rejected by the government), it has support from newer residents who also are hoping the city can embrace a more diverse and environmentally friendly future.

“Hope,” said Benjamin Vidmar, who’s attracted worldwide media attention for establsihing a local greenhouse and permaculture program the past few years, namin ghis top wish list item. “For people to be open to new things and quit with the business-as-usual mentality. To not be afraid of everything different.”

Another area the government fell short of the hopes of many local residents and officials was initiating work to protect dozens of homes in areas considered at-risk of avalanches by building barriers and other protection. Instead, proposals are still being evaluated and an ongoing shortage of available housing persists, especially with tourism season beginning again in a couple of months, making the top wish list item for many one of the most basic.

“Safe housing,” said Veronica Langteigen, a Longyearbyen resident for the past 12 years.

A more verbose longing was expressed in a Facebook post by Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, one of many by local public officials imploring the government for more local support.

“There is a lot of positive things about Longyearbyen and I am incredibly proud of this place and the people who live here,” he wrote. “But building a robust Norwegian family society at 78 degrees north, which consists of repeated evacuations, is a difficult task…I certainly believe I speak on behalf of all the people elected: there must be a step forward in action –and an important part of what determines the pace is that the city) and the other Svalbard budget items are given an economic basis for this.”

But while most interviewed offered grand overview thoughts for what Santa could bring the city, a few picked options they felt were the true spirit of a gift, in the sense of being something invaluable that the recipient would almost certainly never buy for themselves.

“A fully functional recycling system,” said Kristin Haugland, who moved to Longyearbyen 14 months ago, noting that while the town in theory has residents sort the trash the throw out, theres still a high amount of waste for what’s supposed to be the Norway’s pristine crown jewel.

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