Ninilchik residents are ready to get serious about community unity and development, was the message Monday at a community forum.
Organized by the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District, the meeting intended to gauge public attitudes toward making a commitment on paper to more organization. The two dozen people who went to the fairgrounds to participate overwhelmingly voted to move forward -- with caution.
"We ought to work together as a community to define what our needs are," said Laura Trunnell, one of the audience.
The consensus in the room was that even though government is still a dirty word to many rural Alaskans, including those on the Kenai Peninsula, the Ninilchik area has grown so much and has so many needs that residents need to move to a new level of cooperation.
Mark Weatherstone, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service as the peninsula's RC&D coordinator, and Mike Chihuly, who represents Ninilchik on the district's board, chaired the meeting.
Chihuly explained that pursuit of grant money is the big motivator.
The reason he joined the RC&D and called for the meeting is because rural communities are eligible for grant funds that could help Ninilchik. But those grants are only available if the community can demonstrate support, responsibility and organization.
Weatherstone showed the group examples of grants and their application forms. The state Department of Community and Economic Development, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies and foundations have funded peninsula projects such as the new hockey rink in Sterling, emergency service equipment in Moose Pass, developing a community action plan in Nikiski and purchasing trail grooming equipment in Homer.
But grants are not available to just anyone who asks, he stressed. The keys are to be an incorporated nonprofit and to have the right type of plan for documentation.
Most grants ask for a proposed project to be listed as a priority on a community plan.
"They want to see that a project has some sort of broad, community support," he said.
The RC&D provides professional support and advice for community groups working on such plans. Moose Pass, Funny River, Cooper Landing and Nikiski have put together such plans. Anchor Point and Sterling are working on them, he said. Chihuly advocated getting the community back together in the fall to work out a plan.
"(The money) is there if we do our homework," he said."... I would like to see us make a decision on whether we want to do it tonight."
Rather than making an elaborate plan with a prolonged period of public comment, he suggested people prepare to roll up their sleeves, press ahead and produce a document in several sessions.
"Let's fine tune that puppy until we have the greatest consensus we can come up with," he said.
Weatherstone and Chihuly made a point of going around the entire room and giving each person present a chance to comment.
Several voiced concerns about how such a move would play out but still agreed that it was a good idea to proceed.
Ruby Kime warned that some grants come with awkward requirements in the fine print and that some communities get funds to develop facilities but then are unable to afford ongoing operations.
Gary Oskolkoff asked if a formal organization would be a prudent first step. "These things tend to get started," he said. "... and then there is no entity to follow through."
Several people expressed concern that it would be difficult to get enough people involved in the planning process to get a majority of citizens' feedback.
But in the end, those present agreed that outreach, a formal organization or details of grants are problems to consider at a later date, and that a community plan could help more than hinder dealing with them.
Suggested priorities for Ninilchik projects included recreational facilities, resources for emergency services, potable public water supplies, street lighting, serving a growing senior citizen population and improvements to the fairgrounds. Some called for establishing a community association.
"We've been a community with a lot of needs for a long time with no real representation," said Mike Schuster. "There are way too many issues facing us here in the coming years."
Trunnell warned that if the current citizens do not pull together to take care of community affairs, newcomers flooding into the area could do it instead and marginalize longtime residents.
Bruce Oskolkoff, president of the Ninilchik Traditional Council, gave his support as well.
"I believe it is a good idea ... and it is something that really needs to be done," he said. "In the absence of a municipal government, there is a lot of funding we are missing out on."
Weatherstone pointed out that the community plan could help Ninilchik get funding to further study options for community organizing, helping to cover costs of community surveys, meetings and research.
He urged people to ponder the community's future throughout the coming summer, list ideas and prepare to tackle a plan in the fall.
"Try to have some fun with this thing," he said. "Do some brainstorming."
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