The majestic beauty of the Kenai Peninsula is a lure to thousands of summer tourists, infusing the area with seasonal dollars. Finding a way to keep a year round influx of cash is a balance long sought by local leaders.
Keeping the Kenai Peninsula's economy moving takes people -- people who create jobs through the businesses and services which keep the community vibrant. Retaining or drawing in entrepreneurs can be a challenge for any community. And Alaska, with the majority of its towns rural, would seem to be a drawback, but for many that in itself is a lure.
Former Kenai Peninsula Borough School District graduates, Eric O'Guinn, and Drs. Mat Canava and Chris Hudson, grew up on the peninsula and realized the advantages of the small town feel and opportunities still available for those willing to take them.
Canava, the only board certified dermatologist on the Peninsula, always knew he would return to Soldotna and not just because he has family here -- though that was a factor in the decision.
"Personally, I like the ability to go to the store and know most folks there. There is little traffic, compared to cities Outside. It also retains its natural beauty, and it does not yet have that industrialized feel," he said.
Acknowledging that he cannot live on the beauty of the land alone, Canava said the area remains attractive because it is relatively easy to get a business set up, with fewer permitting headaches when it comes to building. With fewer levels of managed care here, he is able to offer his patients one-on-one contact that is his style.
"It feels very good to know I can give a standard of care comparable to any major university, here, and people do not have to travel far away from their families," he said. "Local government should try to keep those extra levels of bureaucracy to a minimum. That is how to keep it attractive to work here."
Canava said that Alaska is a young state -- a place where opportunities still exist. That sentiment is echoed by O'Guinn, a certified prosthetist and orthotist and owner of Advanced Biomechanics.
"I grew up here and my wife grew up here. But professionally, Soldotna offers many opportunities to take my specialized skills and make a difference to people I have known all my life. I knew I would give back to my community because it gave me so much growing up," O'Guinn said.
O'Guinn touted the growing medical community that surrounds Central Peninsula Hospital, as well as support specialties like his -- he creates or offers a wide variety of artificial limb solutions and orthopedic braces -- as an attractive reason for families to stay or come back. With four children, he hopes the attraction remains for generations to come.
"When a city can offer its residents the ability to get what they need close by, like we can now, it stays viable. Being able to offer those who come to my business support to learn how to use their new artificial limbs instead of sending them to Anchorage is an instant gratification for me. It also comforts me to know if they need physical therapy or follow up I can call and get them in and be able to know personally they are getting their care," O'Guinn said.
O'Guinn, Canava, Hudson and other specialists spent many years, in some cases more than a decade, in the Lower 48, going to college, graduate school, taking extensive training and honing their respective crafts and specialties, before they could come back and work in their communities. Those year are something which Hudson, a doctor of dental surgery in Soldotna, said should be an issue to address when discussing keeping graduates here.
"You do or you don't know you will come back to your hometown. I just knew I would," he said, "But when kids have to go out to get their education, and depending on their profession, years of extensive training, they get used to the big money and coming back is harder to do."
He was interested in the Gov. Parnell's scholarship ideas, but said curriculum needs to be addressed, too.
"It's good to try to offer money to help with education, but making sure you're offering classes people need is the only way they won't go Outside," he said. "The program they used to have, that if you came back to the state after you graduated college they would forgive part of your student loans, was a good idea. If they didn't have the classes you needed, a least you could get that education and come back and help your community in a shorter amount of time."
For those unlike Hudson who "just knew" he was headed home, Canava suggested that civic leaders reach out to high school students and be their towns' best recruiters.
"Some kids just want out, but no one really tried to sell it to us -- the town and what it has to offer or its benefits for us later. Even a presentation could change the way some think," he said.
Hudson feels the cities in which kids grow up which work to create a sense of community and pride will help bring kids back.
Like the others, Hudson found the outdoor activities his personal draw. But as a community member, businessman, husband and father of two, it was the positive small town attitude of the area helped he and his wife know that the decision to raise their two children on the peninsula was the right one.
Nancianna Misner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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