The Soldotna Visitor Center continued on a downward trend this summer with a slight decline in visitors.
“We have slowed down just a little bit,” Shannon Davis, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, told the Soldotna City Council in the visitor center’s quarterly report Wednesday.
From May to September of this year, the visitor center saw a total of 26,869 visitors, down about 2,000 from 2016. Since 2006, the visitor count has dropped from over 46,000, but the decline hasn’t been steady. The visitor center saw a jump in people in 2013 and 2014, with visitation numbers over 40,000 both years, but then in 2015, visitation plummeted nearly 28 percent and has been slowly decreasing since, according to the report.
“The numbers continue to decline and I think that’s probably directly related to the number of buses that we have bypassing the center now,” Davis said. “They’re going straight to the Kenai (National) Wildlife Refuge and what we’re hearing from them is that the parking and bathrooms are an issue.”
Although Soldotna’s Facebook page is thriving, with just under 10,000 total page likes, the city saw a 9 percent decrease in website visits this year.
“I dug into that a little bit, and I think it’s directly related to the state of Alaska having a smaller marketing budget,” Davis said. “We’re receiving quite a few less hits from their site.”
To combat falling numbers, the visitor center and the chamber of commerce have a few different plans in the works.
By December, Davis says she plans on having a newly designed visitor guide.
The guide, which will highlight the different attractions and appeal of Soldotna and the surrounding areas, has brought in about $48,000 in advertising revenue to the chamber.
“We’re looking for a look that’s a little more updated and modern,” Davis said. “It’s kind of modeled after a periodical, looks like a magazine.”
The chamber has also revitalized its efforts to raise money for the new proposed visitor center on the Davis Block and Concrete property in downtown Soldotna. The city acquired the property after purchasing it for nearly $1 million in 2013.
“I think the location there on Davis Block, adjacent to Soldotna Creek Park and with the concert facilities right there, will make the visitors number pick up,” city council member Lisa Parker said.
Plans for the new location have been in the works since 2015, with the chamber’s “dream” building costing an estimated $14 million.
“In light of current economic situation, the chamber really took a good look at what we thought we could conceivably do to make this building a reality,” Davis said. “… We’re scaling that back.”
The new plans would include an 8,500-square-foot building costing about $4.5 million. It would still feature a conference center and take the visitor center to a better location. The building’s design would also be conducive to future expansion, Davis said.
“It’s not what we want, but it would get us through,” Davis said. “We’d be able to have some conferences and I do think that we would be able to bring people to town.”
Davis is still awaiting new plans from the architects, but will be bringing them forward to the council soon, she said. The chamber is also currently in the process of hiring a capital campaign coordinator to jump-start fundraising for the new building.
“We’re really optimistic that we could make it possible in a couple of years,” Davis said.
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