Soldotna voters nix visitor center purchase

Daniel Lynch stands alongside the Sterling Highway in Soldotna to encourage city residents there to vote Tuesday afternoon. Lynch said he was strongly opposed to the proposed purchase but wanted to get people to vote regardless. “As long as people vote — that’s the American way,” he said.

Soldotna voters rejected a city ballot measure seeking the go-ahead to purchase the Hutchings Auto Group Building for the purpose of relocating Soldotna Visitor Center during a special election held Tuesday, with 60.8 percent of the voters checking no.

 

Gloria Wisecarver said Tuesday during the vote that she did not think it was a good idea to move the visitor center.

"I don't think it's the right location," Wisecarver, 81, said. "It seems like it would just be a bottleneck there at that corner."

Wisecarver was among the majority Tuesday -- the results of the special election showed 60.8 percent, or 358 votes against the measure, while 231 people, or 39.2 percent of voters were in favor of the measure. The results will not be official until next Monday, when all of the absentee votes will be counted. As of Monday, there were about 77 absentee ballots, but that number was expected to rise, Soldotna City Clerk Teresa Fahning said.
Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle Glaves said the residents of Soldotna showed they did not agree with the chamber's proposed move.

"Obviously the Chamber Board thought that this was a great project and would be a great asset for the people of Soldotna," Glaves said after the results were posted. "But the voters spoke otherwise."

The Soldotna City Council passed an ordinance during their March 28 meeting calling for a special election to determine whether the city could move forward in the process to purchase the former Hutchings Auto Group building for the relocation of the Soldotna Visitor Center. The purchase needed to be ratified by voters per the Soldotna Municipal Code because the purchase price is over $2 million. The Hutchings Auto Group building near the "Y" intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways and comes with a price tag of $2.1 million.

Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche said it was important for the residents to voice their opinion on the purchase.

"We place all major projects on the ballot and let the voters decide and respect their wishes," Micciche said. "As stated in the ordinance, the prevailing no vote has determined the facility will absolutely not be purchased by the city."

The Hutchings Building sits on a 3.12-acre site with approximately 17,500 square feet of space on the first floor, according to a city of Soldotna fact sheet.

The current visitor center has about 800 feet of space, Glaves said in an April interview.

"We get about 45,000 people in here within a three-month period," she said.

Soldotna resident George Stein said that having the visitor center on the main stretch of highway would be good for the city.

"I think it's a good location, it provides easier access for visitors as well as local people," Stein said. "I'm hoping that it will make that area of town a little more aesthetic."

Soldotna business owner Norm Blakeley said he thought voters weren't getting the whole story, and that's what may have led to the measure failing.

"The city's talking about a visitors center and the (Soldotna Chamber of Commerce) is talking about a convention center," Blakeley said.

Greta Boone thought the money set aside for the purchase should go to the city's properties already in place.

"We have a sports center that is not utilized to its full capacity," she said. "They have conference rooms, they have a lot of amenities that are not being used and we're paying for it."

Tasha Crouse said that the city should look into relocating the facility because of the location and the accessibility would be beneficial -- and that in the future, the center could host trade shows and be able to cater to the Peninsula instead of having to travel to Anchorage.

"It's close to (Soldotna Creek Park), and in the future it would allow us I think to bring some more commerce to the town," she said.

Glaves said the process to find a new space for the visitors center will continue.

Logan Tuttle can be reached at logan.tuttle@peninsulaclarion.com.

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