Jobs may not be plentiful, but community spirit abounds

Small-town living priceless

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Take away Seward, Soldotna, Kenai, Homer and Seldovia, and what's left of the Kenai Peninsula?

According to data provided by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the remaining areas account for approximately:

62 percent of the peninsula's 50,000 population;

68 percent of its 34,701 registered voters;

44.6 percent of its gross sales;

and 25.5 percent of its business licenses.

Shane Horan, Kenai Peninsula Borough assessor, put a monetary value to the smaller populated areas. According to his numbers, the total certified value of real property in the borough was about $2.85 billion in 2000. Unincorporated areas account for more than 65 percent of that amount.

Wes Sherrill moved to Moose Pass 20 years ago and has owned Moose Pass Inn for 14 of years.

"Seems like a few new families are moving in," Sherrill said. "Mostly, they have prison-related jobs and commute into Seward. And there's a lot of forest service employees, too."

Once a stop for the Alaska Railroad, Sherrill said the train "just whistles on by" now. Plans for widening the highway are being discussed and will mean big changes to the area.

"It will probably scramble the town up pretty good," said Sherrill.

Joyce Olsen is a 35-year resident of Cooper Landing and the 25-year owner of The Shrew's Nest, a variety, hardware and gift shop. In 1965, her family purchased the Sportsman's Lodge, which no longer exists.

"Back in those days it was mostly just lodges," Olsen said of small community contributions to the peninsula's economic picture. "These weren't destination points; just a wide spot in the road."

Olsen said an increase in fishing guides and improved highways have resulted in change.

"Now this is a destination point," she said. "Travel is faster, easier than it used to be. Life is a lot different. We weren't as connected to the other communities as we are today."

Another change is a shift in the age of area residents.

"A lot of people have retired here," she said. "Families that owned summer cabins when the kids were little decided to move to here when they retired, fix the cabin, add on, or build."

David and Sally Davis illustrate Olsen's point. After serving as camp hosts at the Kenai River boat launch and falling in love with the area and the people, the Davises chose to relocate from North Carolina three years ago.

"None of us want the community change," said Sally Davis. "We all have the typical 'leave it open until I get here and then close the door' attitude."

Employment can be a challenge to those not retired, Olsen said. The result is a population willing to commute in order to call Cooper Landing home.

Borough assembly representative Grace Merkes and her husband, Leon, moved to Sterling 40 years ago.

"My husband wanted to homestead," she said.

Leon Merkes worked as a teamster in the Swanson River oil field. When lack of work forced him to seek employment elsewhere, Merkes and their children occasionally traveled with him. Sterling's population growth is the biggest change Merkes has observed.

"As far as economic development, I would say not a whole lot has changed," she said. A cannery, restaurants and service stations have come and gone; a furniture store has remained; and the biggest employers are the school and a local contractor.

"We're always trying to get more community support so we can be our own community instead of a bedroom community of Soldotna," Merkes said.

Stan Thompson, former borough mayor, and his wife, Donis, homesteaded in Nikiski in 1959.

"When I first came here, there wasn't anybody living here," Thompson said. "I mean nobody. I wanted to be as far away from town as I could get, as isolated as I could get it. And I had to have a lake."

Homesteading brought the first wave of Nikiski residents; discoveries of Cook Inlet oil brought the second. Now, Thompson said, the draw to the area is "peace and contentment. Just the way we like it."

He said most Nikiski residents "work in Kenai or in the oil patch in Nikiski or fly out of Kenai to one of Alaska's other oil patches."

"For a while, (Nikiski) was really moving, (drilling) platforms were being built in the inlet, that type of thing," he said. "But its slacked off. I don't see any major building going on right at the moment. But the little businesses that are here, that stuck it out, seem to be doing fairly well."

Warren Hoflich and his wife, Elizabeth, first saw Alaska when they traveled from their San Bernardino, Calif., home to visit their first granddaughter. Pulled north by what Alaska had to offer, the Hoflichs moved to Anchorage before finally settling in Funny River 12 years ago. They built their home on what Hoflich called "the ideal spot" 13.5 miles out Funny River Road. Three years ago, while the couple was out of town, the home burned to the ground.

"We have 55 years of married life and we lost everything -- pictures, records, everything," Hoflich said.

What the couple didn't lose was their connection to the area they've adopted as home. Today their new home sits exactly where the first one was, and Hoflich is president of the Funny River Chamber of Commerce.

"This is just a real close-knit neighborhood," Hoflich said. "Everyone helps each other."

The chamber consists of about 85 members, including a couple of fishing guides and several contractors. The local general store, with its restaurant, is a favorite gathering spot. And the combined chamber and community association building provides a focal point for the community's summer festival and bingo games.

"It's just a laid back community and everybody helps each other," Hoflich said. "We just all get along real well."

The paving of Funny River Road was a welcome change for the community, according to Hoflich. He said that with only one road in and out of the area, a bridge across the Kenai River to the Sterling Highway would be a good safety measure. And with an eye toward safety, the community is putting together an emergency response group.

"We have an ambulance we're fixing up, and we're trying to get enough money together to build a fire station out here," Hoflich said.

He estimated that 300 individuals are involved in the effort, including some who have already gone through emergency response training.

Jodi Evers and her husband, Tim, moved to Ninilchik from Anchorage 10 years ago because of Tim's charter fishing business, Fishward Bound Adventures. Since making Ninilchik home, Evers was president of the Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce for five years, recently stepping aside to become secretary and treasurer. Her husband organized the Deep Creek Charter Boats Association. The couple also owns and operates Deep Creek Sport Shop.

"There are probably 50 businesses that are members of the chamber and 70 members in the charter boat association," Evers said. "As far as the community, we have a lot of new businesses."

Added to growing numbers of fishing charters, bed and breakfasts and cabins, Evers said, there is a new hardware and auto parts store, more eating establishments, and Deep Creek Custom Packing has begun operating year-round.

"And there's two grocery stores in Ninilchik -- that shows growth," said Evers, referring to her business, as well as Ninilchik General Store.

Tom Clark is the three-year president of the Anchor Point Chamber of Commerce. Originally from Pennsylvania, he drove to the peninsula in the early 1990s and "met the boss's daughter," whom he has since married.

Through Clark Management Services and Timberline Construc-tion, Clark manages ventures, real estate partnerships, and buys and develops properties.

"Anchor Point has a receding timber market economy," Clark said. "But we have a very stable tourism economy. Our number one features are Anchor River and Cook Inlet. They attract thousands of tourists every year."

A number of restaurants and overnight accommodations allow fish-minded visitors to catch early morning tides.

Although Clark considers Anchor Point a bedroom community for nearby Homer, he said there is an effort afoot to expand the town's economic advantages. He said snowmachining in the Caribou Hills is a popular attraction, adding, "Anchor Point provides some jump off points. Cross-country skiing and dog mushing are also possibilities."

Residents are considering changes that might result from a proposed gas line running through the area, and several companies, including Phillips Petroleum Company, are interested in exploring what lies beneath Anchor Point's surface, according to Clark.

"I hope the community rallies around the growth of this area and the responsible development those companies can provide," Clark said.

Like elsewhere, Clark reported a growing senior population. And, as with communities peninsulawide, Clark said a strong community spirit is Anchor Point's ace in the hole.

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