Staying power: Home is where the heart is

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

The Kenai Peninsula is where Kelly King's heart is.

That's why she came back to Nikiski -- the place where her grandfather homesteaded and where her extended family still lives.

"I really enjoyed growing up on the Peninsula," she said. "There are so many good people in the area and everything I love to do is right here."

King, freshly 30, is the homeless liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. After graduating from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2005 she moved back to the Peninsula.

"It's hard to say exactly what will happen in the future, but I have no plans of leaving," she said. "I see myself raising a family here someday."

That notion is not so uncommon for young people in the area. Many, like King, are attracted to the Peninsula because of its natural beauty, and "small-town" charm.

According to statistics from the state Department of Labor, nearly 11 percent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's 54,000 population represents people aged 20 to 29.

That's roughly 4 percent less than the "20-something" population of Anchorage, according to state statistics.

And that discrepancy is seen in the borough's older population.

The borough's median age was 39.4 for residents in 2009, versus 33.5 for the state overall in the same year, according to the department's data.

The borough also has the reputation of being a retirement haven, with the state's highest percentage of residents getting their income from retirement and disability insurance benefits.

Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor in Anchorage, said young people are attracted to the Peninsula for many of the same reasons as retirees -- recreation.

For folks in their 20s, the Peninsula seems to be a place to settle down, but can present some social and professional challenges to those who do not want that immediately.

"It's a good place to live and raise a family but if you want to broaden your horizons this is not the place," said Heather Elder, 22, who works in Soldotna.

Elder said she has hopes of becoming a big-time music producer. And because of her career goals she does not plan on sticking around the area or moving back later.

"I want to go far," she said.

And Alaska is far behind the curve.

"It's just super slow," she said, talking about the fashion and music trends that lag behind the Lower 48.

Elder said she thinks there might be professional opportunities for 20-somethings here if they're willing to put themselves out there and start their own business. Like Elder, who works at Coffee Roasters on Kalifornsky Beach Road, the majority of her friends work service sector jobs in coffee or in hair and make-up. Some work on the North Slope.

"Not all of them require you to have a degree outside of high school," she said about the jobs her friends have.

Economist Fried said the fact that the Peninsula presents opportunities for those people without college degrees is a plus.

"One of the beauties about the Peninsula is there are jobs available to the Peninsula that pay good wages and don't require a college degree," he said. "Because the Peninsula has one of the more diverse economies in the state I think it that makes sense. For kids who haven't gone that four-year route there are opportunities that exist there (more than) in other places.

"There's a richer array of opportunities that might exist for younger people moving into the workforce."

King said she feels there could be more opportunities for young professionals like her.

She said her friends who live here are "all over the place career-wise," one being a hairstylist, another a youth probation officer, some public employees and some who work in the oil field.

For some jobs, like oil and gas related fields, the Peninsula is a great place to be, "but others seem to be very limited."

"There is definitely room for more opportunity," King said.

But despite the lack of professional opportunities, and other perks that might be missing for some "20 somethings," it's where King wants to live.

"I'll always call the Kenai my home," King said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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