Challenger Center may host DEW Line exhibit

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001

At a fund-raiser in Anchorage for Sen. Ted Stevens last week, a new idea was hatched for another project at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

In the process of military bases being shut down, the Distant Early Warning Line station at Clear Air Force Base south of Nenana was closed, and Kenai Mayor John Williams said the idea of putting its control rooms on display might be a possibility.

"The thought was we could have the museum here in Kenai at the Challenger Center," Williams said.

He said the DEW Line at Clear cost $500 million to build in 1959, the equivalent of $5 billion today.

"The location of a museum here would be a long way from Nenana, but it's not a bad idea," Williams said. "It was the beginning of the missile age and the space age."

He figured a 40-by-60-foot addition would have to be built on to the Challenger Center, on the grounds of the Ted and Catherine Stevens Center for Science and Technology.

Stevens was instrumental in securing several rounds of federal funding for the center, amounting to millions of dollars.

Williams said the museum addition would hold two of the then-state-of-the-art DEW Line control rooms, along with other exhibitions. Funding could come from the military, which has been given a lot of money by congress to mothball bases.

Williams joked about his experiences at Clear as a younger man.

"For years, my greatest fear was ever going back to work at Clear," he said with a smile. "And they closed it last year, and now we may have it down here."

The idea will be going before the Challenger board of directors, which the mayor sits on. He asked Wednesday night if the members of the Kenai City Council had any objections to exploring this idea, and no one did.

The mayor, always excited about how much federal and corporate money the Challenger Center has brought into the city, reminded the council of the very beginning in 1995.

"Remember when I asked you for $15,000 to start this thing?" he asked. "With the present appropriations, we now have $9 million into the Challenger Center."

In other news from Wednesday's council meeting:

Williams noted Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker's comments the day before that other communities, such as Kenai, Sterling and Nikiski, would have to share in the cost of building an event center for it to be realized. Soldotna voters will have before them in October a ballot proposition to allow the city to float a $5 million bond to partially pay for construction.

"Is the city of Kenai interested in partially funding an events center?" Williams asked his council.

"No," said council member Pat Porter.

"I would be interested if it was located in the proximity of the city of Kenai," council member Joe Moore said.

Others shook their heads.

The site selected for the center is next to the Soldotna Sports Center.

The council appeared to be ready to write a letter to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly recommending the number of seats on the Borough Planning Commission be increased from 11 to 13, but council member Duane Bannock asked the body to hold off so assembly president Tim Navarre could address the council on the issue.

Navarre introduced an ordinance Aug. 7 that would not guarantee the borough's cities a seat on the commission. The Soldotna City Council came out against the idea Aug. 8.

Kenai's representative to the Borough Planning Commission is Phil Bryson. He said one of the shortcomings of Navarre's plan is that it is written in such a way that the assembly and the borough mayor could apportion the commission so that some cities have no representation and others could have more than one.

"If a city nominates three or four people, and if they are acceptable, philosophically, two or three could be appointed," Bryson said.

"I see some real danger to the community," Williams said. "You could end up with a commission with five people from Seward or Homer and none from Kenai."

Bannock agreed, saying the city needs to tell the borough it wants its own pick.

"Even if we nominate five, they can pick from there," he said.

"It's an anomaly that the borough has tremendous responsibilities, population and money, but it's still a second-class borough," Williams added. "And here we are, a first-class city with a charter, which is tantamount to a constitution.

"While many powers are granted to the borough, we should not give up ours."

Williams ordered a letter of invitation be drawn up, asking Navarre to appear before the council as soon as possible.

The city accepted a $20,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration. The money will be used for economic development planning as part of the city's upcoming comprehensive plan.

The council passed an ordinance outlawing the use or sale of fireworks inside city limits, except for authorized displays. Police Chief Dan Morris told the council his officers have previously enforced the Kenai Peninsula Borough's ban on fireworks, but recently found out it does not apply to the city.

Council member Linda Swarner said summertime tenant "Hooks, Books and Gifts" in the Kenai Municipal Airport terminal has submitted its 30-day notice. Swarner said the shop will close a month earlier than planned.

That item prompted a brief conversation on other leases in the terminal. Airport Manager Becky Cronkhite said she often is approached by people who want to put an espresso stand in the small booth adjacent to the departure entrance, directly across from the Era ticket counter. The city has not pursued that because Wings Restaurant has an exclusive food service contract in the terminal. However, it will be up for renewal soon.

Also from the airport, Alaska's Best Travel recently signed a new five-year lease.

Glen McCollum was appointed by the mayor to a vacancy on the Kenai Harbor Commission. There is one more seat open, and Williams said he wants to find someone who has experience dealing with state and federal agencies to do some lobbying for the Kenai sea wall.

Two new memorial rocks were approved to be placed at Leif Hansen Memorial Park. One request came from Angela and Don Schreiner, dedicated to Helen Turnage.

The other came from Jim Spracher, which would honor "All American Homesteaders." He also asked the city pay for placement of the rock and mounting the plaque. The city approved the request to allow the rock, but declined to pay for it.

Mayor Williams wondered aloud why Spracher wasn't honoring "All Alaskan Homesteaders."

Porter moved that after these two, the city bar future memorial rocks. It died for lack of a second. Bannock moved the city administration draw up guidelines for memorial rocks. It passed.

The council gave its approval for City Attorney Cary Graves to enter the city into a contract with the state of Alaska to collect traffic fines by attaching an offender's Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend check. Violators currently owe the city more than $40,000 in unpaid traffic judgments.

The next council meeting will be Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. at city hall.

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