City approves money for new Soldotna visitors center

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce was out in force to talk about a new visitors center and the need for bigger restrooms.

Officers and board members addressed the city council Wednesday night to promote a plan for a new center and parking lot near the existing facility.

The council was considering an ordinance that would transfer $400,000 from the city’s sales tax capital fund to the general fund for the purchase of land next to the visitors center.

A plan put forward by the chamber, which has its offices in the visitors center building, would have the city purchase the land from the business group, which would in turn apply the money toward building a new, larger visitors center that would be owned by the city.

Currently, the city owns the visitors center-chamber office building and the land immediately under it.

The chamber purchased the land around the center last year to prevent it from being bought by an outside private party.

By agreement from the previous owner, the chamber and visitors historically used the land as a parking lot. Without it there are only three or four parking spaces adjacent to the building.

“I see the future expansion of the visitors center as an asset to the city,” said Tim Pope, owner of Natron Air charter service and a former president of the chamber of commerce.

“I see it as a missed opportunity every time a (tour) bus bypasses the center and goes somewhere to find bigger restroom facilities,” he said.

The current building has one single-stall men’s room and one single-stall women’s room. During the busy summer months, the chamber of commerce rents porta-potties and places them in the parking lot for tourists to use.

A new visitors center would include larger restroom facilities to accommodate tour bus passengers, according to a chamber of commerce plan sent to the city.

Visitor Center Coordinator Sylvia Reid said the center also needs more room for her to display artifacts and photos about Soldotna she currently is forced to keep in storage because of the lack of space.

Reid would also like to see a small kitchen facility included in the new visitors center.

“Right now, when I make coffee, I have to use the sink in the restroom. It’s so small. It’s the only sink in the building,” Reid said.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle Glaves said last year, more than 50,000 visitors used the parking lot at the visitors center “in a very short time.”

“Our ultimate goal is you buy the property for $400,000 and free up the money for us to use to improve the building,” she said.

Although no definitive plan has yet been submitted, options discussed include expanding the existing building or building a new, larger visitor center and remodeling the existing building as an office building for the chamber.

City Manager Tom Boedeker explained the ordinance being considered only transfers money from one fund to the other by the council so officials negotiating a deal know the money is available.

One person spoke in opposition of the idea.

“I question the wisdom of spending $400,000 for private entities to help their businesses,” said Daniel Lynch.

“I feel it is the job of local government to pave roads, provide police and fire protection and provide water and sewer,” he said.

“Now it seems we have a surplus of money to spend on private entities,” he said.

Lynch asked the council to “seriously think about spending all that money.”

Lodge owner and chamber member Marnie Nelson said the chamber helps the community in many ways.

“The more tourism we bring into the community helps many in the community, not just the businesses,” she said.

Following the exchange between Lynch and Nelson, council member Sharon Moock asked Boedeker where the transferred money would come from.

“The money would come from the capital projects general fund,” Boedeker said.

Annually about $2 million in that fund comes from sales tax, he said.

The council unanimously approved the transfer.

In other business, the council approved hiring a full-time, non-permanent police officer to work with the Kenai Peninsula Drug Enforcement Task Force. The position will be funded through July 1.

Police Chief John Lucking Jr. told the council he has seen “a significant need,” and said it is time to “step up and deal with people dealing drugs in our community.”

Council members also continued their discussion about whether to allow a biathlon shooting range and mini-course to be set up in Centennial Park. No action was taken.

Boedeker said city officials looked at the issues of safety and noise, and said putting the range in the park could be done safely if some guidelines are established.

He said testing would need to be done with regard to noise from the shooting.

Moock, who resides across the Kenai River from Centennial Park, said people in her neighborhood deal with Little League games being announced on loudspeakers as late as 11 p.m. all summer, and with noise from revelers in the RV campground at Centennial.

“It’s very quiet in the winter,” Moock said.

“My neighbors are not going to be willing to give up that peace and quiet in the winter,” she said.

The council gave its OK to guidelines for its scholarship program, which awards academic and vocational scholarships to students who attend high school in Soldotna or reside in the city.

Scholarship applications need to be completed and submitted to City Hall by 5 p.m. April 28.

The council recognized two youths who recently won Caring for the Kenai environmental competition awards.

Thomas Kircher was awarded for his idea to keep roadsides cleaner by placing weighted material over truck loads such as leaves and yard waste to keep them on the truck.

Courtney Antwerp came up with a plan for small community organizations and businesses to adopt a park, clean it each month and make being in the park “a more fun experience.”

During his Public Works Department report, Director Steve Bonebrake said extended daylight hours have contributed to a rise in the number of stray dogs and cats the animal control officer is being summoned to pick up.

“The number of bites is also up,” Bonebrake said.

He also said the weather has kept the streets department unusually busy.

“Yesterday we were out putting sand on the streets we swept just the day before,” he said of a surprise snowfall that covered Soldotna streets Tuesday morning. “It’s a very interesting time of year.”

Bonebrake also said city residents with concerns about water pipes freezing through the winter should not stop taking preventive measures too soon.

“Just because it’s getting warmer up above, does not mean things have stopped freezing down below,” he said.

He recommended people continue allowing water to trickle slightly from taps to prevent freeze ups.

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