Chamber shares vision for new facility

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011

The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce returned to the city council Wednesday night with more concrete information on its proposed visitor/convention center, but still left many questions unanswered.

The council agreed by a nod of heads to allow the city manager to pursue answers to these nagging questions -- such as the purchase and operating costs -- by engaging in talks with the chamber. The center would sit where the Hutchings Auto Group building is right now, at the "Y" intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways.

Ryan Kapp, president of the chamber's board of directors, began the presentation by putting the current visitor center situation into perspective. He measured the council chambers, found it to be around 1,100 square feet, and remarked that the present center has accommodated more than 55,000 visitors over the last six or seven years with only 950 square feet of space to work with.

While Kapp acknowledged he did not have an asking price for the Hutchings property yet, he cited market analysis done in September 2010 valuing the building and 4.1 acres of land at $2.5 million.

The current visitor center, which is located on the south side of Soldotna on the Sterling Highway, is appraised at $1.02 million; a significant offset to the purchase price of the Hutchings spot if sold. And selling, Kapp noted, is one of two options the chamber sees. It could also engage in some sort of trade with the Hutchings group.

"They have expressed interest in exploring that option, so that's worth talking about," he said, reminding the council that either of these options would likely contribute to future property tax revenue for the city.

Kapp said that the chamber would hope to garner outside grants and funding to go toward the project, and that they have already earmarked funds for a project like this.

He also identified more than 150 in-state conferences hosting more than 50,000 attendees, demonstrating a huge market for a Soldotna convention center. Kapp solidified this point by referring to the economic impact the addition of a convention center has had on other Alaska towns of similar size -- Valdez reported $10 million in revenue in 2008, Ketchikan $1.6 million in 2002, and Sitka $3 million in 2003.

But still, certain questions lingered, most notably, "How much is this going to cost?"

"I ask you, just for a minute, to set aside the egress challenges, and the renovations, and the potential cost," Kapp said, gesturing at the artist's rendering on the projector screen. "Just picture yourself coming down the hill, past Fred Meyer there, into the city, and seeing this facility greeting you."

Kapp summed up his presentation by requesting the council take its past partnership with the chamber seriously and move forward with the discovery phase of the project.

"What we're really asking is for the city to continue the strong partnership that we've had over the last 23 years," he said, "to together explore this opportunity further and start getting the answers to some of the thoughtful questions that have been posed to us by your body and others."

The chamber plans on returning to the council after they complete the discovery phase, which should not last more than 60 days.

Karen Garcia can be reached at

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