Bullish: Top Conservative Party candidate expects Longyearbyen to grow rapidly, even if most coal mining is lost

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Torgeir Prytz said he believes Longyearbyen will have 3,000 residents when his first term ends four years from now. Seriously.

The top-ranked candidate for the Conservative Party acknowledges the town may lose 150 or more employees at Store Norske by next summer – which when factoring in families and workers in related industries could mean a loss of 300 to 400 of Longyearbyen’s current 2,100 residents.

But Prytz, 38, is expressing the confidence the Norwegian government, currently led by his party, will provide enough financial assistance to keep mining and/other industries strong in Longyearbyen.

“If you give us two years we’re going to be on an upswing,” he said.

Furthermore, he said there is considerable potential for new business opportunities and many outsiders who are interested, but at times there are obstacles to making those opportunities happen. A company wanting to offer sightseeing boat trips, for instance, must submit its sailing plan three months in advance.

“That’s difficult,” said Prytz, arguing the timespan should be drastically shortened. “You don’t know if you’ll have enough passengers, you don’t know what the weather will be like, you don’t know what the ice conditions will be like.”

Another goal emphasized in the local party’s platform is a local workforce – specifically requiring Store Norske and certain other employees to live in Longyearbyen rather than “commuting” to their homes on the mainland for two weeks after a two-week work shift.

Prytz acknowledged the idea isn’t popular since a high percentage of Store Norske’s employees are commuters, but “some of them are saying if that’s what it takes they’re willing to live here.”

All parties except the Green Party favor keeping Store Norske’s mining alive, although the Liberal Party is opposing new government assistance to continue propping up money-losing operations. Prytz said ideally the government would keep Svea as well as Mine 7 open, resulting in a minimal loss of jobs, and focus exclusively on extracting industrial-quality coal that can be sold for higher prices than standard energy-grade coal.

“You can talk about being against coal mining, but in the end you still need steel,” he said.

Prytz, supervisor of the Svalbard Satellite Station, said such facilities show Longyearbyen can have a strong economic future in Arctic technology. His party also favors the accelerated construction of a new power plant.

“If you start planning and get the funding it could be completed in six years,” he said,

“But we have to start now.” Even though the government has already provided funds for upgrades to the current plant, he said it’s costly to run. Plus, Conservative or not, “of course we want to have sustainable energy attached to it,” he said.

He also suggested other smaller chances aimed at increased local hiring, such as relying less on outside consultants.

While some candidates admit not enough has been done during this election to reach Longyearbyen’s increasingly large percentage of non-Norwegian residents, Prytz noted the Conservative Party’s fourth-ranked candidate, Khanittha Sinpru, is a Thai who’s lived here for the past 13 years. He said party candidates also met with Thai residents, the largest block of non-Norwegians in the city, but admits there are no miracles he can offer the many who are worried about losing their jobs in industries related to Store Norske.

“I can’t tell them vote for me because you can keep your job because I can’t promise that,” he said.

Prytz said he doesn’t want to predict what the makeup of the new council will be, except that he believes no party will get a majority. But he said if the Conservative Party had been the ruling party during the past four years Longyearbyen’s struggling business climate might be different now.

“I think you would have seen more local private enterprises here because we are very focused on that,” he said.

He said his biggest challenge if elected will be learning to ask the right questions when meeting with government officials. But using the answers effectively is his biggest strength.

“I have the ability see things from a different perspective and I’m a huge fan of using common sense,” he said. “If there’s one thing this community needs right now it’s common sense.”