The long awaited and much anticipated Kenai Economic Development Forum drew more than 120 people to the Kenai Senior Center on Saturday to hear business and community leaders air their feelings about the state of the city.
The most rousing comments came from Kathy Tarr, the executive director of the Kenai Conven-tion and Visitors Bureau and the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. She lived up to her title as the city's top cheerleader in the area of the arts and tourism when she listed point-by-point how the city was lacking and how it could improve.
Tarr, obviously nervous about her speech, repeated several times how she "knew" she was going to be "run out of town" for her comments.
Tarr is still here, and her comments went straight to the bone of why the forum was held.
"People need a reason to turn at the Y and drive the 11 miles to Kenai," she said.
Reading several excerpts from travel magazines about Kenai, Tarr said one called Kenai "even more bland than Soldotna," another said it was not worth visiting unless you want to fish.
"But what's worse than what they say about Kenai is what isn't said," Tarr continued.
She said the Alaska Division of Tourism World Wide Web site made no mention of Kenai or Soldotna until she called to straighten them out.
She held up the city of Kenai's quarterly newsletter and pointed out that even though the visitors center is city property, it is not mentioned.
"(And) there is no link to the center on the city of Kenai Web site," she said. "When people look for travel information on it, we're not there."
She went on to say the visitors center was the No. 1 visitor destination in the city, with 55,000 people coming through its doors in the summer months alone, but that wasn't enough.
"There is no compelling reason for visitors in Kenai to stay over night. We have activities during the day, but that's it," she said. "We have to change that.
"There is no focal point, no city center, no place for pedestrians to gather," she added.
She also lamented the fact that most of the spectacular views of the Kenai River, Cook Inlet and the volcanoes across it have been hidden from view for visitors, save for a few scattered spots.
It was a sentiment echoed by Dr. Jim Zirul, owner of the Peninsula Ear Nose and Throat Clinic, later in the day.
"Look at this view," he said, pointing out the Senior Center's expansive bay windows. "In my opinion the most important public works project the city can tackle is the river project."
Zirul referred to the proposed one-mile long coastal trail and sea wall for which the city is seeking funding.
"The river walk would be a half-mile from the hotels, and there would be a view of the canneries, the river and the range of volcanoes," he said. "The river walk would be the defining element of Kenai.
"And if you think it's fluff, it's not; The city has to take advantage of what it has."
Zirul reiterated what Tarr said about a city center, saying people moving to the city from the Lower 48 want a town center.
"They want to walk around and wave to Joe the bartender or something"
Tarr also said another comment she's heard from visitors to Kenai was about the substandard hotel rooms.
"(Visitors say) there are too many smoking rooms and they are rundown," she said. "Travelers are accustomed to higher standards and Kenai lags behind.
"Now, I'm not saying we should close the local hotels and bring in the big boys, but we need to raise our standards."
Meeting space, or lack thereof, was another touchstone of Tarr's speech.
While more than 100 people crowded into the senior center, it's not available on a regular basis for conventions or larger meetings, and the visitors center only can seat 75, limiting the kinds of meetings that can be held there.
"We can't market what we don't have," she said.
Some of her other points to improve the city included:
Promoting public art and the arts in general;
Getting stronger support for public events that draw people to Kenai, such as the Kenai River Festival;
Looking into a bed tax to help fund the convention bureau's promotion efforts. She said the Kenai convention bureau was the only one in the nation not supported by a bed tax;
Promoting a historic loop with signs at the Y in Soldotna, attracting people into Kenai on their way to Homer;
Rethinking the city's zoning code to promote business growth and to avoid strip malls;
Working closer with the city of Soldotna on promoting the central peninsula as a destination, and;
Strengthening ties with Native groups and the city's historic culture.
Jim Segura, president and general manager of the Salamatof Native Association, said he and other Native leaders were once invited by Mayor John Williams to have breakfast with the city council to discuss city-Native relations.
"I was amazed at how little they knew about Native organizations," Segura said. "I wanted more meetings, but we never had any. We should get back to that and work a little closer to explore our different roles."
Fred Braun, of Freedom Realty and a former longtime retailer, said he was told to "hold nothing back," in his speech.
"And since I don't live in the city limits, I guess I don't have to worry about my driveway being plowed in," he said.
"Where's the men's wear store? The apparel store for women?" he asked. "I order from Eddy Bauer or Lands End, like those who want a little better quality than is available locally."
Braun went on to list what else he thought was missing in town:
"How many times have we been asked 'Where's the restaurant with a view?'"
He said there hasn't been a foreign car dealer in town since the 1970s;
The city needs its own economic development department or person. "The Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District has to be boroughwide."
He suggested there be a red carpet committee in place, like there was in the 1960s and '70s to encourage and greet new businesses in town.
With his real estate agent hat on, Braun said he always tries to "sell" the city of Kenai.
"People new here don't want to be 23 miles out, they want secure subdivisions, or to be near a doctor," he said.
Braun also had comments he's collected from people he's spoken to:
The subdivisions are old, and there's no newer apartments, duplexes and fourplexes;
Some said Kenai is dying on the vine, and the city fathers need to do something before the city is just a road to Soldotna;
Kenai is living on its oil past, and;
There are too many hoops to jump through in dealing with the city when someone wants to build or remodel.
He also suggested the city try to find a way to house the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offices, so the borough administration could spread out in the overcrowded Borough Building.
Realtor Gloria Feeken, of Re/Max of the Peninsula, said the city should not fight what it is.
"Don't garden against nature," she said. "Kenai is an industrial city, and to change to a tourist destination or a garden boutique is against nature."
She also said the disparity in home interest rates from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation between inside and outside city limits needs to be changed. Currently, she said, the rate inside the city is 1 percent higher.
She said the looks of buildings in Kenai need to be improved to reverse the negative view visitors have of the city. She also suggested rezoning the Kenai Spur Highway corridor as commercial to give businesses highway frontage.
"People want to be from Main Street Loop to Soldotna," she said. "The old Carrs Mall and Gary King Sporting Goods are on the wrong side of town."
However, she went on to say Kenai could not win the "war of retail" against the city of Soldotna.
Kenai Chamber of Commerce Vice President Cherie Brewer said she gathered comments from business people in town, and some of them surprised her.
"I thought I knew what was going on here, but speaking to chamber members opened my eyes," she said.
Some of the comments were that the city is not business friendly;
That the city does not listen to ideas unless they think them up, and;
The city has an inconsistent zoning plan and more quality homes are needed.
"We need to make Kenai a place people want to live in," Brewer said.
Returning to tourism, Dennis Brandon, vice president for tourism with Cook Inlet Region Inc., the regional for-profit Native corporation for Cook Inlet, said the city's people have a lot of pride in Kenai, and that should be built on.
"If I were on a task force, I would study how to attract German-speaking Europeans. Kenai has what they are looking for," he said.
Brandon said the city should focus on a major community event that would attract people from around the world. He cited the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., or the Sitka Summer Music Festival.
"You can't find a room there when that's going on," he said.
He suggested a summer jazz festival or an extended air show or a recreational vehicle round up of some sort to attract visitors to Kenai for an extended period of time.
"Something to promote the town as a great place to be in the summer," he said. "You need to think outside the box."
Brandon also said the city should work more closely with Soldotna to bring visitors to the area.
"It's better to have a piece of a large pie than have all of a really small pie."
Mayor Williams said he and the council will go over all of the comments that were made, and wants to see another economic forum meeting next year.
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