Despite being described in national travel magazines as "even more blandly middle-American than Soldotna," the city of Kenai is building a reputation as a cultural tourism destination.
Four speakers addressed business leaders at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce lunch last week at Paradisos Restaurant about cultural tourism. Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center Director Kathy Tarr said she believed it was the first time the subject had come up before the chamber.
Tarr read a handful of descriptions of the Kenai-Soldotna area from such nationally known travel publications as "Sunset," "Pacific Northwest" and "Frommer's Alaska."
One described Soldotna only as "a good place to stop and get gas."
"I fume at how the Kenai appears in the national press. Kenai-Soldotna is not known for its arts and culture," Tarr said. "What I've learned from the Outside travel press is that we must have a product. We must develop quality events."
Tarr said when she was growing up in Pittsburgh, it was "a dirty, one-trick steel town." But over the years, it has transformed itself into an arts and cultural community with a burgeoning high-tech sector.
"Who's laughing at Pittsburgh now? Nobody," she said.
Tarr sees the same for Kenai. Earlier this year, she said Kenai is "more than just the oil patch."
The proposed Alaska Center for Arts and Education being planned for Kenai would be a great cultural draw, Tarr said, as will the Challenger Learning Center.
"People who come down here for Challenger will want other things to do," she said. "I guarantee you that cultural tourists spend more money."
Cross promotion was the message of Ann Campbell of the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council.
"Most Americans don't know about Kenai," Campbell said. "They're planning seven to eight months out and may have decided where to go and what to do before they ever leave. That's why cooperative marketing is so important."
She said the "Alaska 2000: A Celebration of Wildlife Art" show that is opening in May at the visitors and cultural center is a prime example of cultural tourism.
"If this show becomes a destination show, when people come they will stay in hotels, buy gas and do other tourism things," Campbell said.
The Alaska 2000 show will have more than 75 original wildlife paintings from such noted artists as Robert Bateman, whose "Alaska Autumn" is featured on the show's postcard and poster.
Kenai Peninsula College professor David Wartinbee is the curator of Alaska 2000.
"We have 28 different artists and originals from each one of them," Wartinbee said. "I've had galleries call and ask how I got an original Robert Bateman in our show. Well, we don't just have one, we have three."
The show is the largest of its kind ever exhibited in Alaska, according to the cultural center's Ricky Gease, who is working on the show.
Gease also spoke about the second season of interpretive programs at the center this summer. On Mondays, science on the Kenai will be featured; Wednesdays, it will be arts on the Kenai; and on Fridays, the topic will be Dena'ina heritage.
"We're working with what is called a noncaptive audience -- people who can leave at any time. So we must try to make it interesting," he said.
In past years, a self-guided tour map was available at the visitor's center, but this year, Gease said, guided tours of Old Town Kenai will be offered twice a day -- at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. -- Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Tarr also suggested putting more artwork in public places to better promote the Kenai arts community.
"We're in discussions right now about creating a special display at the Kenai airport," she said.
In the past, Tarr said, the arts often were seen as nonprofit groups walking around with their hand out.
"Now, the arts are looking for a handshake with business."
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