As it stands, Soldotna's visitor center could do with some improvement. Smallish, largely hidden, and positioned in a way that necessitates the most frustrating of turning maneuvers, it isn't terribly resident- or tourist-friendly.
The city's Chamber of Commerce had been looking into the center's expansion and redevelopment for several years now, but recently concluded that relocation is a better option than renovation.
In a presentation delivered to the Soldotna City Council Wednesday night, Nancy Casey of Casey Planning and Design spoke on behalf of the chamber on why the currently available Hutchings Auto Group property would be the ideal site for the construction of a bigger and better visitor/convention center.
Hutchings Auto Group sits on the south side of the Sterling Highway, adjacent to Soldotna Creek Park and just past the intersection with the Kenai Spur Highway. The chamber believes that not only would relocating to that part of town give tourists a more positive first impression of Soldotna, but that it would accomplish a slew of other ambitions.
"With a better location, we can achieve all the goals," said Casey. "We can get that gateway -- that welcome, a large convention center, improve that visibility and access. We can have something that is on the Kenai and also in the heart of Soldotna."
Besides showcasing the river and Soldotna Creek Park, Casey said the proposed center would benefit tourists due to its proximity to local shops, restaurants, and hotels. The festivals and markets held in the neighboring park would also be easily accessible.
The addition of a convention center to the Kenai Peninsula would not only be advantageous for prospective attendees, Casey said, it would also increase sales tax revenue for the city, which would consequently benefit residents.
"There are numerous groups that meet regularly around the state and their only options are Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, and Valdez," said Casey. "They're looking for new places. The chamber even gets phone calls saying they want to come here, but we have to turn them down because we don't have a facility that meets their needs."
Mayor Peter Micciche, who is on the chamber's board of directors, agreed that the city is foregoing plenty of chances to raise revenue due to the lack of such a facility.
"We are missing many opportunities with those meetings," he said after the presentation concluded. "Just think about state chamber and things like that; they go to the same three cities because that's all that is available."
Most of the council seemed to find Casey's presentation persuasive, with some members noting that the location and its potential advantages do seem ideal.
"I agree this is a great location," said Councilmember Dale Bagley, "but I still think access is an issue. I think pulling across that traffic is going to be difficult."
Market analysis conducted in October 2009 by the McDowell Group confirmed that there is also strong community support for such an undertaking.
It isn't yet clear if the 20,000 square-foot building currently on the Hutchings Auto Group premises would be remodeled or demolished to make room for an entirely new structure, as the project is purely conceptual at this point. Still, the chamber hopes that by gathering this background information that the mayor and council will get excited about the idea and decide that such a development is necessary for the city.
A follow-up presentation focused on more concrete plans and data is scheduled for the council's April 13 meeting.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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