Census numbers reveal growth trends in surprising places

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

If there's power in numbers, Sterling and Nikiski may have some newfound clout.

Recently released Census Bureau figures for 2000 show that Sterling is now the second largest community on the peninsula behind Kenai. Nikiski is the third largest.

While all peninsula cities showed some growth; the new figures show a veritable population explosion in those two communities. Sterling's population increased from 3,802 in 1990 to 4,705 in 2000. Nikiski grew from 2,743 in 1990 to 4,327 in 2000. By way of comparison, Kenai's population was numbered at 6,942 in 2000, up from 6,327 a decade ago; Soldotna's population grew to 3,759, up from 3,482.

Was there really that much growth in Nikiski and Sterling, or were the two areas grossly undercounted in the 1990 census? It's hard to say with certainty. There's no doubt those areas are hard places to conduct headcounts with their wide open spaces and long, winding roads that may just lead to a house or two with nobody home. No one argues, however, there has been considerable growth in both communities.

The reason for the growth is easy to understand. Both communities offer what Kenai and Soldotna don't: more affordable housing, the ability to buy more land with one's home and an off-the-beaten path lifestyle with the amenities of the cities just down the road. The schools in both communities have fine reputations. Although Sterling has just one elementary school, Nikiski has two elementary schools and the Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. There are lots of places to enjoy the great outdoors in both communities. Both communities have active senior centers. In addition, Nikiski has created its own recreation area, complete with swimming pool, nature-fitness trails, picnic area, ice rink, outdoor volleyball and a multipurpose field. No wonder the population in those areas is growing.

The Census figures support what might be aptly called growing pains -- particularly in Nikiski. Those growing pains have resulted in an effort to explore the idea of incorporating as a city and the birth of the North Peninsula Community Council just nine months ago. They've brought demands to improve the North Road section of the Kenai Spur Highway and generated talk of extending the highway beyond Captain Cook State Park. They've even spurred discussion of rerouting the Spur Highway away from the industrial plants for a drive through Nikiski most people never see. (In fact, there will be a highway planning session for anyone who's interested at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Nikiski Senior Center.)

It's worth noting that not only are people choosing to live in Nikiski in record numbers, but there are some exciting economic projects on the horizon. Work has started on BP's gas-to-liquids experimental plant. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has been pushing for a Nikiski terminus for the proposed North Slope gas line. New oil and gas activity in the inlet means more activity for the many service-related industries located in Nikiski.

Its industrial base has not kept people from choosing to make their homes in Nikiski, but residents made it clear at the community's economic forum earlier this month they want to preserve the lifestyle they now enjoy on the north peninsula. That includes protecting the area's environment.

That may seem incongruous to those peninsula residents who equate Nikiski only with the industrial plants located there and who like to stereotype "North Roaders" as environmentally insensitive, red-necked slobs.

One has to venture beyond Nikiski's industrial base to see the community that its residents love -- a land of lakes, wildlife, great recreation opportunities and quiet places. That's as much Nikiski as its reputation as the industrial heart of the borough.

Nikiski residents have a vision for their community that includes both a vibrant economy and a healthy environment. They want a place where they can enjoy what they live in Alaska to enjoy -- including multi-use trails and a place to fish. They want organized recreation and jobs for their young people. They want an attractive place to live, which means removing the empty, collapsed buildings and slash piles cluttering the landscape. They envision the possibility of a deep-water port and cargo hub in their community.

In short, Nikiski residents see the potential of expanding their economic base and not only preserving, but improving, the quality of their lifestyle.

With all that's going on in the community and with all the community has going for it, Nikiski may even shed its anything-goes, Wild West reputation. One almost has to wonder if that was an image designed to keep Nikiski's many wonderful qualities a secret known only to those willing to venture past stereotypes. In any case, the community has matured beyond its reputation.

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