Volcano center land gift tops borough agenda

Is suggested donation a worthy contribution or future headache?

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2000

The nonprofit corporation planning to build a volcano interpretive center in Stariski wants land for free from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Some look on the proposed gift as a worthy contribution to economic development. Others, though, question whether the borough should donate to nonprofit organizations.

"I don't see this as economic development," Soldotna's Susan Gibson told the borough assembly Tuesday. "I see it as a pet project that's going to cost taxpayers a lot of money in the end."

She cited financial woes of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and questioned the volcano center.

"If this is a viable project, it will certainly stand on its own, and it's not even that," she said. "It's not even off its knees right now."

On Friday, though, North Pacific Volcano Learning Center Inc. President Bob Favretto said construction of the $12.5-million facility would be a huge economic boost to the lower peninsula.

"The construction and the vendors that take place in building that kind of facility is pretty exciting," he said. "It has to swell the economic development of that area -- no buts about it."

He said he can imagine visitors starting at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, then visiting the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai, the volcano center in Stariski, and the proposed Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in Homer.

Corporation officials convinced the assembly two years ago to buy 80 acres by the mouth of Stariski Creek for the center. At the time, they said they had put $50,000 down on the property but feared they could not make two $200,000 balloon payments to complete the purchase. It would be easier to raise funds to build the center if the borough would buy the land, they said.

The borough's appraiser subsequently valued the land at $250,000, while the corporation's appraiser valued it at $380,000. The seller, Bertha Glud, wanted $400,000.

In September 1998, the assembly agreed to pay $315,000 for the land. The corporation agreed to contribute the remaining $85,000, and the borough bought the land.

However, the corporation has been unable to apply for grants with the borough holding the title, said Steve Noey of the firm Locher Interests LLC in Anchorage.

"Any grants require title to the land, because they want to make sure there's a place to put the project," Noey said.

On Tuesday, assembly members Tim Navarre and Drew Scalzi introduced an ordinance to give the land to the corporation for $1. However, ownership would revert to the borough if the corporation failed to raise $5 million for the center within five years.

The borough also would take back the land if it ever ceased being used to support the volcano center, preserve the Stariski Creek estuary and provide public trails.

The assembly holds a public hearing on the proposal May 16 in Soldotna.

No one represented the corporation at Tuesday's meeting. On Friday, though, Favretto called the gift an investment in economic development.

"If we were able to raise $5 million and the borough put $300,000 into it, that's probably a good return on the investment," he said.

Developing the property may cost well more than $12.5 million, Favretto said, but $5 million would get the project off the ground.

"The project itself is going to be done in phases. I'm sure that way before $5 million, we'll see some significant progress as far as building the building."

Former assembly member Debra Holle of Kasilof called subsidizing the center a poor use of taxpayers' money. Roads, education and public safety are higher priorities, she said.

Holle said she fears locals will suffer if the borough hands the land to the corporation to manage the estuary and enhance tourism.

"I remember fishing for silvers late in the fall off Stariski Creek," she said.

The 4-H Club and equestrian groups also use the area, she said.

Holle said the proposed gift runs counter to criteria the assembly set last year for borough participation in economic development projects. On Friday, though, Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said that poses no legal problem.

"The assembly, by ordinance, can elect to follow another procedure," she said. "Whether the public wants them to do that -- that's a political question."

Gibson said more and more nonprofit groups are asking for borough subsidies, and subsidizing the volcano center may set a poor precedent. Donating land to nonprofits takes it off the tax rolls, she said.

"People want to see things like this scaled down," she said. "This is not by any stretch of your imagination what can be considered an essential government service."

Assembly member Jack Brown said the borough already has given land to nonprofit groups. Navarre said the center would boost economic development, and research conducted there would increase knowledge of volcanoes and improve public safety.

Though the SeaLife Center has had problems, he said, it has brought new hotels to Seward.

"They have new jobs that were created," he said. "They have a lot of things that are happening, revitalizing the community. In the long run, they're going to win."

That is what people on the lower peninsula want, he said.

In other business, the assembly:

n Accepted a $2 million federal grant to deal with problems arising from the spruce bark beetle epidemic.

The assembly authorized the mayor to spend $300,000 to provide a chipper to dispose of slash, $300,000 through the Cook Inlet Tribal Council for removal of hazardous trees and reforestation, and $200,000 to evaluate forest fire hazards and make efficient use of fire-fighting resources.

It appointed a committee to develop plans for spending $1.2 million in hazard-tree removal funds. Projects could include removing hazardous trees around public buildings, removing trees that pose fire hazards to peninsula communities, protecting utilities and infrastructure and planning forest fire escape routes. The committee must report back by June 6.

n Appropriated $671,792 for the first phase of a three-year program to buy new computers for borough schools.

n Authorized Central Peninsula General Hospital to spend $300,000 to remodel bathrooms.

n Authorized the Planning Department to spend $84,050 for satellite photos of 1,000 square miles within the borough.

n Certified results of the by-mail election to form a service area to collect property taxes to support recreation on the southern peninsula. Voters rejected forming a service area by a two-to-one margin.

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