Kenai’s bears are making a name for themselves around the country.
But last week it wasn’t because of a human-bear conflict. Instead, humans dressed in bear suits helped the city win a second All-America title at the National Civic League’s annual competition, which was held in Kansas City, Mo.
Sharon Metz, a juror at the competition, said the bear protection issue was something unique for many of the attendees. She’s from Carrollton, Mo., a 2005 All-America winner, where that isn’t a common problem.
“We felt like they had a great story to tell,” Metz said of the Kenai delegation’s presentation.
Kenai shared three projects with the judges — one about protecting the health of the Kenai River, one about wildlife conservation efforts to help mitigate conflict between people and animals, and the Caring for the Kenai student competition.
One other city — Eden, North Carolina — included a river project. The other challenges presenting communities talked about ranged from neighborhood revitalization and efforts to heal cultural divides to providing opportunities for youth and expanding libraries.
The finalists ranged from a town of 50 people to a major city: Fort Worth, Texas.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter said the variety of towns made the competition interesting.
“It was just so diverse, it was great,” Porter said.
The other All-America title winners are Dublin, Calif.; Lakewood, Colo.; Belleville, Ill.; South Bend, Ind.; Scott City, Kan.; Tupelo, Miss.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Eden, N.C.; and Fort Worth, Texas.
Metz said that the finalists were of such a high caliber that it took judges four-and-a-half hours to choose the winners.
“The communities were just absolutely wonderful this year,” Metz said.
Porter said the best part wasn’t winning, but getting to engage with other cities.
“You just became such friends and realized you’re all part of the United States,” Porter said.
Porter said the presence of members of the military in the audience who came with the Fayettville North Carolina team, which includes part of Fort Bragg, helped create that atmosphere.
“It was so cool, and it made you realize how proud you were to be an American,” Porter said.
Christine Cunningham, co-chair of Kenai’s All-America committee, said the national spirit at the awards ceremony was one of her favorite parts of the event.
“The sound was deafening and the words being shouted were incomprehensible at that volume,” she said in an email. “Then, some of the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, who were brought in by the City of Fayetteville, started shouting ‘USA’ — it caught on and soon the noise changed into the entire ballroom shouting ‘USA’.”
Metz, who has judged the event seven times, said that spirit was absolutely present.
“It was a great time of not only community spirit, but wonderful spirit of what our country is about,” Metz said. The projects presented wind up changing not only the individual communities, but the nation as a whole, she said.
The competition included a 10-minute presentation from each community — Kenai went first on Thursday morning — as well as 10 minutes of questions from the judges, a youth forum, and a civic fair for each community to display information about itself.
Cunningham said that Mary Jo Joiner, her co-chair and Kenai’s library director, was a hit because she took items around the civic fair to those working the tables, so they could still get a taste of Alaska.
The presentations and civic fair were also a chance to learn from other communities, not just befriend them.
“A lot of ideas will be coming forward in the real near future,” Porter said.
Metz said the projects impact not just local communities, but eventually make a difference in the country.
Aside from the new ideas, the designation likely means an update to the All-America sign at the entrance to the city, and maybe a float in the Fourth of July parade, Porter said.
Cunningham said there was more youth participation at the event this year than in the past. The caliber of the youth participants was another favorite part for Cunningham.
Kenai was one of many teams to take along local youth as part of the delegation.
“The children that went were great, and the two young adults that we took — Kelsie Leaf and Hannah Coffman — did an awesome job, very well respected,” Porter said.
The children were Creed Sandahl and Leah Johnson, who played bear cubs mowing down on garbage in the presentation and passed out Bear Aware stickers during the Civic Fair.
Porter also said that it took more than just the 14 presenters to earn the title.
“There were so many team members that stayed here,” Porter said, calling it a community effort.