While Soldotna has various, strong industries in its community — medical, education, retail, construction, recreation — City Manager Mark Dixson noticed the city lacked a common thread tying the pieces together.
With Stephanie Queen, director of economic development and planning, they worked with people in the community from various agencies and created the economic development council.
“That’s what this council is doing is tying them all together, finding synergies amongst them so that we can all move forward in a complementary fashion rather than separately,” Dixson said.
The administration decided to bring together not only local business owners, but also representatives from larger institutions like Central Peninsula Hospital and Kenai Peninsula College.
In September 2013, the administration and the council met with economic development advisers for two days to create a strategic plan for Soldotna.
Out of those two days the council came up with an action plan called “Soldotna Forward,” which identifies four focus areas, Queen said.
The first is looking at the central peninsula area — not just the city of Soldotna — as a region for organizations and companies to hold meetings, conferences and trainings.
The council is looking at ways to improve the network of meeting sources and how to better help agencies looking for spaces find facilities they need.
Queen said she sees a need for a larger meeting space in the area, whether it be developed in Kenai or Soldotna.
“If we can attract large meeting conferences to this area in general, it’s going to benefit all of us,” she said.
The second area of focus is local business development and identifying and alleviating roadblocks that may hinder new business development or existing business expansion, Queen said.
“Some of this stuff is kind of low-hanging fruit,” she said. “We can look at the information that’s available on the city website. We can look at our process and we can get really critical about improving that.”
A new city website, with information about business expansion and development easier to find, is already in the works.
Within the focus area of local business development, the council is also looking at where businesses get materials outside of the peninsula and whether those supplies can be provided locally.
“Quality connected place” is the third focus-area, Queen said, which deals with investing in communication about various Soldotna assets.
“It’s no secret that visitors get an impression when they drive through Soldotna,” she said. “Particularly, if all they see is the Sterling Highway, they may not know we’ve got this phenomenal new library or that we’ve got kind of world-class parks. They see really kind of a limited version of our community.”
New signage for Soldotna’s downtown core and website information are just a couple ways to increase awareness of what the city has to offer, Queen said.
Another aspect of the focus area is ensuring Soldotna has attractions to draw people into the community. Queen said the city’s parks and trails are a big part of that goal. The Soldotna Regional Sports Complex is another resource the city is working to promote the expansion of as a quality of life asset for residents throughout the area.
“There are a lot of benefits to living in this central peninsula,” Queen said. “We’re different than Anchorage. We’re different than the valley. There are a lot of great reasons to move down here. We’re trying to identify the gaps and fill those in, and I think part of that is just making sure that we’ve got things to do year-round and the type of institutions in a community that people want.”
While the city sees a huge amount of visitors in the summer, the administration is working develop attractions to encourage tourism year-round. From clearing Arc Lake for skating to adding bathrooms and lighting to Soldotna Creek Park, projects toward that goal are already underway, Queen said.
The last focus area is events. Queen said people in the area do events really well, but the council wants to fill in any gaps in the community calendar, promote more events and coordination between people looking to put on a new event and veteran event doers. Not only does Queen see residents enjoying events, but they also bring visitors to the community.
Now that the four focus areas have been identified, Queen said the next step is action and what can be done each month to move forward with development.
“I think that with the economic development council and the folks from the community dedicating their time, their assets as well as the city, I think we’re going to be able to accomplish a lot of these things that were potentially too challenging in the past,” Queen said.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.