Land use, the Internet and the benefits of the medical community were Wednesday night's topics at the second session of the Soldotna economic development forum.
The forum is part of a continuing series co-sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District.
An estimated 70 people attended the forum, held at the Soldotna Sports Center, which itself was a topic of discussion.
Parks and Recreation Depart-ment Director Andrew Carmichael said a convention center -- either an expanded conference area at the sports center or a stand-alone facility -- is needed to attract more people to the area in the winter months.
"We need another 500 people here in the summer like we need a hole in the head," he said. "We need to be full in the winter."
The sports center conference room has been described as institutional, with cement block walls, a low ceiling and harsh lighting.
The city commissioned a draft plan on what an expansion would look like, and it almost triples the meeting space, has its own entry -- a glass-walled gallery -- a very large kitchen and restrooms of its own. Currently the kitchen area is very small and restrooms must be shared with hockey players.
"It doesn't work when you're at a wedding reception in high-heels or a suit, and 30 Pee Wee B players come screaming around the corner," Carmichael said.
In fact, City Manager Tom Boedeker repeatedly had to settle down loud children running in the hallway during the two nights of meetings.
"There has been a lot of talk about not hooking them together," Vice Mayor Jim Stogsdill said of the convention center and sports center, adding that even if a new facility isn't connected, it would be very close to take advantage of the sport center's staff.
The council plans to review bids and award a design contract by the end of this month, which will be followed by a series of four public meetings to determine what shape the convention center should take.
"Don't let these meetings pass you by," Stogsdill told the attendees. "This will be a good thing for Soldotna."
Healthy Communities-Healthy People Executive Director Lisa Parker asked if there has been any discussion with the city of Kenai about a combined convention center.
"To be quite honest, the last time the discussion ended before it started when they said 'of course it will be built in Kenai,'" Boedeker said. "There has been no invitation from Kenai, but I'm quite willing to sit down with them."
Kenai Mayor John Williams is eyeing a vacant piece of bluff property next to the Vintage Pointe Manor senior apartment building for a convention center and hotel, but his vision has it built by a developer, not the city, unlike Soldotna's plan to fund it from sales tax revenue.
Land use at the old Alaska Department of Transportation maintenance yard in downtown was also discussed.
"Every one has an idea how to use it," Stogsdill said before turning to Boedeker for a report.
The city does not own the property yet, and it's about to enter the second year of a three-year lease, Boedeker said. The land was part of a three-way land swap with the state and the Kenai Peninsula Borough that moved the DOT shop out of city limits and put the Kenai River Center near the Soldotna airport.
The 8-acre DOT site is in limbo at the moment, as city officials wait for contamination levels to go down.
The city is improving the site, though, by seeding it with grass and having high school students paint the test well casings. Boedeker would like to see the path from the adjacent Soldotna Creek Park extended through the DOT land, essentially making it an extension of the other park.
"There has been a lot of talk about it being the focal point of the city and a place of beauty on the highway," Boedeker said. "We hope to have people look at downtown a little bit different than they have in the past."
Due to restrictions put on the land by the state, the old DOT yard cannot be used for any commercial venture.
The discussion of the economic impact of the medical community in the city focused on its growth.
Dennis Murray, director of Heritage Place, a senior assisted living center, said he believes 95 percent of Soldotna's health care professionals work within a mile of Central Peninsula General Hospital. He said that ability to "cluster" health care providers around a central point is very attractive, which could come into play as more health professionals move to town.
Marty Richman, chief executive officer of CPGH, projected that in 10 years there would be 53 doctors at the hospital, up from 37 today.
"Our outlook is very positive," Richman said. "And your success (small business people) helps us, and I think the vice versa is true also."
Richman said he would like to see another 50,000 to 100,000 square feet added to the hospital and wants to work with the city on accomplishing that.
Carol Buchholz, a pediatrician who moved to Soldotna about two years ago with her husband, Curt, also a doctor, said more room at the hospital would be welcome.
"I don't want much, just a pediatric ward with four beds," she said.
She also praised Soldotna's economic forum.
"If you don't do anything today, a community could die in 10 years," she said.
She said she and her husband called CPGH out of the blue one day, asking if they could use two more doctors. But she said she did not know how difficult and expensive it would be to move from the Dakotas to Soldotna and start a new clinic.
"It was somewhat hard to buy a house close to the hospital," she said. "And it's really, really difficult to find a space for an office. Land is really expensive near the hospital."
She also said learning the ins and outs of the area were difficult for her.
"I didn't know what a borough was," she said with a laugh. "It would really help if you had a welcome wagon to tell people about the city and the borough."
Curt Buchholz said the most critical aspect of a healthy medical community is ensuring that only quality medical staff be hired.
He also suggested the hospital develop closer ties to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer and with doctors in Kenai.
Glen Martin, owner of Martin Mines and the Peninsula Center Mall, said exporting e-commerce programming to the rest of the world could be one thing to keep Soldotna's young people from moving away forever.
"Our goal is to make Soldotna a place they can stay home and work, not jump on a plane," he said. "I hate to see youth fly out.
"It's important to have work and education here," he added. "What's happening now is they are leaving, and probably at a rate that would probably scare us. I just had a partner leave to work for Mr. Microsoft."
One of his companies, Virtual Powers Network Inc., designs Web pages for communities all over the nation.
"We want to build a site for every city in every state," he said.
The sites act as a clearinghouse for businesses and organizations in those cities.
"We're used to importing, but I believe we can export our finished goods worldwide," he said. "We feel we can be Alaska's Silicon Valley."
He said Internet jobs would be ideal to keep Soldotna's youth in the area.
"The Internet is their world," he said.
When Martin was asked about the effects e-commerce would have on local sales tax revenue for the city, he said he is sure that within four years there will be an Internet sales tax.
"There has never been commerce without tax," he said.
The subject of a sales tax prompted Parker to ask Boedeker about a seasonal sales tax increase, something she said was discussed at a past community meeting.
"I hate to get in front of a crowd and say 'yes, we're looking at ways to raise revenues,'" he said. "But yes. There is no free lunch, and we have to pay for what we're talking about."
He said increasing city revenues may not take the form of more sales tax, that it could be an increased property tax.
One item not brought up at either forum was that of transportation. Kristin Lambert, director of CARTS, the Central Area Rural Transit System, said that for some reason economic discussions seem to leave it out.
"Economic development can't happen if you can't get people to jobs," she said.
She said CARTS provided 1,000 rides last month, and that more than half of them were people going to work.
Peggy Mullen, owner of River City Books, summarized the Wednesday meeting.
"Many of the things that came up could be fodder for meetings of their own," she said, suggesting more meetings be held after the first of next year.
She hearkened back to Monday's meeting, when Sweeney's Clothing store owner Mike Sweeney described what he did after stores such as Lamont's moved into town.
"Kenai had a parade when Kmart came to town, and later we read in the paper how five businesses went out of business," she said.
"We need to talk about Wal-Mart and Home Depot, about whether we should invite them into town," she said. "Some communities decide not to invite big stores that pave 20 acres and suck up all the business."
Mullen also suggested a tree preservation program in the city, a railroad spur to the central peninsula ("we can certainly work with Kenai on that"), and providing more to do in town than simply hunt and fish.
"If we want professionals to come here, we need more than just access to hunting and fishing," she said. "Their wives and kids need a livable city."
She said a city where people can walk from place to place is a livable city, and Soldotna needs more ways to cross the Spur and Sterling highways.
Stogsdill said he will appoint a committee to cull through the two days worth of suggestions to decide what is realistic for the city to do.
"We'll probably do it as quickly as possible," he said Thursday. "When we get into discussions about the convention center, we'll deal with some of these other things at the same time."
Money, of course, is the limiting factor.
"If we had a pocket full of bucks we could do it all, but we have to decide what's really important and beneficial to the city," he said. "We'll see what we can do without smashing people in their pocketbooks."
Soldotna's economic forums were the second in a series being conducted in peninsula communities. Kenai held one on Feb. 3, and Nikiski's is on Saturday (See related story, page A-1). Other forums are in the works for Seward on March 27 and Seldovia for April 5 and 6. No date has been set for Homer.
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