There's something fishy going on in Kenai businesses this summer. Fish drinking coffee, fish reading books, fish visiting outer space -- all in the name of community pride and local business promotion in an effort to get visitors and residents alike hooked on Kenai.
The Hooked on Kenai program was organized by the Kenai Chamber of Commerce as a fund-raiser that would benefit the chamber and stimulate interest in area businesses.
"It's a twofold program," said Carol Bannock, executive assistant at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. "The idea is to make this Kenai's new calling card."
Kenai chamber members could buy a fiberglass king salmon, mounted by Tom Kizer of Big River Productions, to decorate and display in their stores. Some larger companies, including Tesoro, Udelhoven, Phillips, Marathon Oil and Unocal, bought fish and donated them to be displayed in the library, the Boys and Girls Club, Alaska Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, the United Way and the senior citizens center.
The fish range in size from 21 to 54 inches and vary in price according to size from $150 to $450. Forty-five fish were sold in all. Businesses could either decorate the fish themselves, commission an artist or even have a group of children do it, like the fish at Kenai Chrysler Center decorated by a group of students from Grace Lutheran School.
Once the fish were decorated and displayed, the chamber printed a Hooked on Kenai map that shows the location of every fish in the program. The maps are free and available at any participating location, the chamber office, the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, the Hooked on Kenai Headwaters site at the Kenai Municipal Airport and in Tesoro gas stations.
The idea is for people to pick up a map and tour all the locations.
A sage-and-catnip-covered fish rests on a net at Fireweed Herb Garden.
"It gets people in businesses that aren't normally in their habit," said Audrey Walaszek, executive director of the Kenai chamber. "The thing with Kenai is that logistically, things are not real easy to find, so we wanted to map it out so not only visitors, but locals know where to go. And a lot of people didn't know about a lot of these cool places to go to shop locally."
The incentive for taking the tour, aside from getting a taste of Kenai's creativity, is the chance to win a free fishing charter. Participants can enter in the weekly drawing for a charter trip at every Hooked on Kenai location. The winner is drawn at the chamber's Wednesday luncheon meetings. The winner can choose between the charter trip or a gift certificate for free fish processing.
"A lot of people thought this would appeal more to visitors than locals, but that's not true because every drawing done so far has been a local person," Bannock said.
Participants also can vote for their favorite fish at the Hooked on Kenai Headwaters. The business with the winning fish will get an award at the yearly Town and Gown Ball.
The chamber recommended artists decorate their salmon in keeping with the theme of their business. Many locations took that creative challenge to heart and came up with clever designs representing their artistic abilities, as well as the character of their businesses.
The salmon at Petal Pushers was the first to be decorated and was shown as an example at a chamber lunch. It isn't often you find a salmon that smells like roses, but this one does.
A salmon with a caffeine addiction gets a fix at Buster's Coffeehouse.
Linda Steimaker, one of the business' owners, wanted to use a flower theme in her decoration so she experimented with crushed flower petals. She didn't like the effect on the entire fish, so she left them on the head, fins and tail and covered the body of the fish in full petals. The petals are lightly colored along the bottom and darker on top to mimic the patterns of a real salmon. For a finishing touch, Steimaker put a dried rose bud in its mouth. Despite being a rushed effort -- she got the fish on a Tuesday and needed to have it done to be displayed at Wednesday chamber lunch -- the fish is creative and fairly accurate in its design. The translucent shellac Steimaker used on the petals gives the fish a sparkling effect, almost like its under water.
"I searched the Internet frantically for any sort of cartoon of salmon to get the lines right," she said. "And of course, when you're frantically looking, you can't find a thing. So I just went by memory."
The fish hanging in the library, donated by Tesoro, might make a better book worm than a fish. It was painted in a turquoise, black, red and white Native design by Ewa Jankowska, library director, and Linda McNair, assistant director. The fish has a pair of reading glasses perched on its nose and books appliqued along its body. The sign underneath it reads "Food for thought," which is appropriate, considering it looks like it is devouring the book placed in its mouth.
The salmon at the Fireweed Herb Garden has a wall display devoted to it and has even been named -- "Herb the Herbed Fish," in honor of the material it was decorated with. Gail Bacarella, who manages the business' herb garden in the summer, decorated the fish with crushed sage and catnip.
Crushed sage makes a darker color used for shading, spots, lines and highlights on the fish. Crushed catnip makes the light green color that covers the rest of the fish.
"That's like a cat's dream -- a fish with catnip," said Susan Jordan, owner of the store. "... Tourists get a real kick out of it.
"I think it's a good program. It gives people a little more to look for in Kenai."
Everything is coming up roses for the salmon at Petal Pushers.
The fish will be on display through the end of August. On Oct. 5, the Hooked on Kenai program will partner with the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Alaska Wild fish branding program. The chamber will hold its annual wine and beer tasting and auction fund-raiser with an Hooked on Kenai Alaska Wild theme to promote the programs.
The fish will be redecorated with a holiday theme to coincide with the Village of Lights event Nov. 1. Then the program starts over again next summer.
Any Kenai chamber member businesses wishing to purchase and decorate a fish can still do so, however, they won't be listed in the map until the next printing next summer.
Hooked on Kenai clothing and memorabilia is available for purchase at the chamber office and the headwaters in the airport.
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