Members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce invited the three candidates to a forum on Wednesday, at which they answered questions chamber members had submitted about their views of developing Kenai.
Kenai voters will choose in the Oct. 3 municipal election between two incumbents — Tim Navarre and Henry Knackstedt — and one newcomer, Bob McIntosh. The two top vote-getters will serve three-year terms on the seven-person council.
Navarre is the brother of present Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre and son of former borough mayor George Navarre. He’s the vice president of his family’s business Zan Inc., which owns the Kenai Arby’s franchise and other ventures and serves in other public offices as well, including a seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Eduction and the chairmanship of the Alaska Gasline Devolopment Corporation’s community advisory board.
Knackstedt, born into a Kenai homesteading family, chaired Kenai’s airport commission for 20 years and was a vice chair of its planning and zoning commission for four years before winning his first term on the council in 2014.
Compared to the two Kenai natives, McIntosh said, “I’m a newcomer.” He came to Alaska as a U.S Air Force member in the 1970s, and moved to Kenai in 1987 to set up a bar code and information technology system for the now-closed hardware store Kenai Supply. He’s presently retired after a career driving school buses and for Central Area Regional Transit System. He has long followed and commented on Kenai politics and city issues, both at city meetings and through his political website peninsulatowncrier.com. He also ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2016.
Though the council members aren’t running against specific opponents, McIntosh has said his goal is to replace Navarre, who is running for his third term as a council member. McIntosh favors creating a two-term limit for Kenai city council members.
The first Chamber of Commerce questions asked the three for a general picture of how they see Kenai’s economy — its current status, its opportunities, and its possible problems.
McIntosh said the lifestyles of Kenai residents depend on economic development “in two ways.”
“We can overdevelop and make this a place which doesn’t have what many people would consider a good lifestyle. Or we could under-develop it to where people are paying too many taxes,” McIntosh said. “There’s a fine line there, and I sometimes think we don’t look at that line. We could go one way or the other.”
Knackstedt said the Kenai’s biggest economic challenge is the statewide economic recession, which the city government has seen in dropping sales tax, and has prepared for with longer-term financial planning.
“What the city has been doing to mitigate that the past year or so has been creating a fund balance policy,” Knackstedt said. “So we’re protecting our fund balance out for the next three years so we don’t fall short.” He added that having dedicated long-term funds for equipment replacement and healthcare also protects the city’s financial interest.
Navarre said Kenai’s collaboration with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to halt erosion of Kenai’s bluffs — funded partly by the federal government and partly by the city — will create future financial need for the city to sell bonds.
“We’re going to have an issue of dealing with additional funding needed to complete the bluff erosion project,” Navarre. “Our bonded indebtedness right now, I believe, is only $2 million, and we’re totally debt free on that in 2030. So we do have a little room.”
As for what the city government can do to help the larger economy, Navarre said there may be opportunities for Kenai’s retail industry.
“We have to give opportunity to some of our smaller businesses, some of them that had to get out because of Walmart and some of them coming in and taking the bigger carrot,” Navarre said. “But I think there’s opportunity now for growth. And I hope some of those businesses come back.”
McIntosh said he favored a minimal economic role for Kenai’s city government, saying “the biggest role that the council has is getting out of the way.”
With the state government running deficit budgets, state funding has been bleeding from city government budgets, including Kenai’s. Knackstedt said some of Kenai’s state grants are running low or running out.
“What we need to do with our budget is maintain our fund balance and our equipment funds and what not, to weather ourselves through the downturn, because it will come back up. It may take a few years, but I think when we come out on the other end we’ll be in great shape.”
Navarre said he was “looking forward to the challenge” of budgeting Kenai through the statewide economic recession without raising its mill rate. He said the city needs to continue pushing for balanced state budgets. McIntosh again said that Kenai’s city government could encourage its businesses by getting out of the way.
A view city
The Army Corps of Engineers plans to issue a construction contract for Kenai bluff stabilization in June 2020, and to have the project completed in 2022. With erosion halted beneath Old Town, enhancing Kenai’s tourist potential was a concern of two comments from the Chamber of Commerce audience.
Marion Nelson, vice president of the Kenai Fine Arts Center, which sits on the bluff in Old Town, described Kenai as a “view city” that hasn’t capitalized on its views of Mount Redout, Cook Inlet, and the river mouth.
“In light of the bluff development, I’d like for the council to keep in mind that this really is a view community,” Nelson said. “And we’ve never really taken advantage of that — we aren’t known for our view, and we should be.”
Ricky Gease, Executive Director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, brought up an old idea for enhancing Kenai’s appeal that has been precluded by bluff erosion — building attractions in the vacant blufftop lot near the Kenai Senior Center, known as Millenium Square since Kenai’s city government began planning for its development in 2002. Past speculative plans for the space have included a convention center and an outdoor auditorium.
“As a council member, what would you do to bring some vitality and use to what’s probably one of the choicest pieces of real estate on the peninsula that’s left to be developed?” Gease asked.
“I don’t see the city itself constructing a convention center or any of that,” Knackstedt said. “The property will become quite available and valuable to developers that come in. And I think that will develop. I’d sure like to see that connected to the rest of the city with trails and bike paths. That’s my vision.”
McIntosh also said that local businesses and individuals should take the lead on developing the property.
Navarre said that when the bluff is stabilized and the property become developable, the city would have “community meetings, community discussions, and try to see what makes sense.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.