Eirik Berger isn’t one for big solutions. Instead he favors lots of people coming up with smaller ones.
The top-ranked candidate for the Liberal Party, which is on the ballot for the first time in a Longyearbyen Community Council election, said one of the flaws of the current leadership is “they have focused on replacing one big industry with another big industry” without knowing what it might be. While ambitions of doubling tourism are being discussed, he said it’s a seasonal industry susceptible to tough times.
“Hotels are one market,” he said. “Then slowly have a transition to some large companies, some medium companies and many small companies.”
Berger cited the newly opened microbrewery as an example of a new type of small business that can thrive in Longyearbyen and noted it took the owner six years to open it due to a long struggle to convince the national government to change a law banning the manufacture of alcohol in Svalbard.
“I wish local politicians had seen that and helped him.” he said.
Berger does agree with other candidates that tourism and research will play a significant role in Longyearbyen’s economic future, but the government needs to needs to encourage such efforts by making the regulatory process less difficult.
“We think the environment is robust enough to take care of the tourist industry,” he said. “We think within those areas these operators should be able to operate more on a trust-based relationship with the governor.”
Other possibilities include commercial fishing that could provide locally-based cuisine and be sold as an exclusive product abroad, and having organizations such as Innovation Norway assist startups by offering office space that’s initially subsidized to some degree.
The Liberal Party is taking a “middle” position about Store Norske continuing its coal mining operations, Berger said.
“If it can be done in an environmentally responsible way as in Lunckefjell and in an economically sustainable way we support it,” he said, adding the party opposes the company’s request for about 300 million kroner to maintain shut-down mines for up to three years in the hope of reopening them. He said if the company gets additional money, it shoud be looking beyond mining.
“We think that with the money Store Norske is asking for they should have some kind of freedom to change course,” he said.
The Norwegian government already approved a 500-million-kroner bailout, consisting of loans and property acquisitions earlier this year to continue mining operations through 2016, although that timeline appears to have been shortened due to a continuing coal price slump.
The Conservative Party has argued the government should continue funding all mining operations long enough to allow Longyearbyen a smoother transition to other industries. Berger said he feels Store Norske’s request, which would keep the smaller Mine 7 open as well as maintaining other mines, does quality as a “soft landing” – even if the town loses hundreds of residents – since a “hard” one would be no government support at all.
“We all know it will be a hard blow for the community,” What I’m surprised about is we didn’t start much earlier. Why were we not thinking about this ten years ago?”
Berger said he’s guessing Longyearbyen will have 1,800 to 1,900 residents when his first term ended four years from now, if he is elected. But he said that will be an increase from the lowest level Longyearbyen reaches and he believes the regrowth of the town in other industries will be in full swing by then.
Berger, similar to candidates in other parties, said he favors the national government taking over much of the city’s infrastructure. Since Store Norske is now entirely owned by the government, he added, making the company responsible for those facilities may be a sustainable alternative to coal mining.
Planning for a new power plant should begin now while there is still enough local coal mining to ensure a smooth process, he said. He also supports the new harbor, but “I have this feeling we are all waiting for something” that will make it an economic asset.
Berger said his party’s representation on the council will change the tone of debate from past years.
“I think discussions will be more vivid, especially when it comes to the environmental questions,” he said. “Both we and the Green party want to start environmental development.”
He said his biggest struggle initially is likely to be a non-politician performing a political job.
“One hard part will be the political process itself because I am a political rookie,” he said. “I know the bureaucracy, but the political process and the rules of the game will be hard.”
Berger said he has worked for the Norwegian Government Security and Service Organisation in, and is familiar with most issues in Longyearbyen from his time working in a brach office of the agency here and as a former reporter for Svalbardposten.
“I know many people and I know their struggles,” he said. “I know Longyearbyen well. I know how central government works. I know my way around the offices.”