Mike Sweeney is, without doubt, the biggest leprechaun in Soldotna.
For the ninth year, the owner of Sweeney's Clothing on the Kenai Spur Highway is spearheading the Greater Soldotna Chamber of Commerce's Saint Patrick's Day festivities and marveling at how they have grown.
"It has became a big deal," he said.
Sweeney is an all-American, but his great-grandfather -- also named Mike Sweeney -- immigrated from the Emerald Isle.
The younger Sweeney and his brothers took part in Saint Paddy's fests in their hometown of Seattle, having a good time in green vests and bowler hats, he recalled.
Alaska seemed farther from the old country when Sweeney first arrived in the pipeline days. But in 1991, when he was on the chamber board of directors, he and Charlie Murphy, who then worked for a peninsula radio station, got to talking about things Irish.
The two decided to put on a dinner at the old Soldotna Lions Club. They cooked it themselves, Sweeney said.
The idea caught on, and the celebration has gotten bigger every year, he said.
Fireworks, a parade, an auction and entertainment are part of the mix.
"The parade is bigger every year," Sweeney said.
Anyone can take part, he stressed.
"It doesn't need a fancy float. It's the people that make it great -- just having fun in the slush."
The dinner has expanded, moving over the years from its first home at the Lions (in the building that now houses Kaladi Brothers) to the Soldotna Senior Center, the Tides Inn and, now, the Soldotna Sports Center.
Wade Hampton Miller, from Anchorage, will perform at this year's banquet as he did last year. Sweeney described Miller as a real Irishman who puts on a great show. The dinner and the auction are bargains for participants, Sweeney said.
This year, the chamber has more than $5,000 worth of donations, and bidders are likely to score bargains, he said.
"All the money goes back into the community," Sweeney added.
For the grand finale, the chamber contracts with FireArt by Griz, the Big Lake company that is Alaska's only licensed manufacturer of explosives and the state's largest fireworks entertainment company, according to owner Griz Smith -- his real name.
Soldotna is the only place in Alaska that does a fireworks show for Saint Patrick's Day, Smith said.
"Soldotna is one of our favorites, just for the tremendous turnout," he said.
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