In its heyday, Wards Cove cannery on the Kenai River operated like a community, bustling with hundreds of people who worked, ate and lived at the facility.
Since the cannery's closure in 1999, however, the site has laid empty, its 50-plus acres and 35 buildings abandoned like others along the once economically vibrant stretch of riverfront in Kenai.
This summer, that could all change.
Two business partners hope to bring the site back to life and capitalize on its historic significance. Steve Agni and Jon Faulkner are planning to buy the nearly 100-year-old facility from Wards Cove Packing Company and turn it into a hub of activity once again by converting it into a multi-use destination resort.
"What is central to this project is that we recreate the town," Agni said. "Wards Cove at the height of its production was a small town."
Agni and Faulkner are no strangers to the visitor industry in Alaska. Both are longtime residents of the state and have experience buying and operating lodging and retail properties, including Land's End Resort in Homer and the Van Gilder Hotel in Seward.
The sale of the site is due to close on or before Feb. 13. Agni and Faulkner already are obtaining the permits they need to begin work on the site as soon as the sale is complete.
On Wednesday, the two came before the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission to get approval of a conditional use permit so they can conduct the many facets of the operation they have planned for the site. The area is zoned heavy industrial.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the permit.
"I am very happy to see an abandoned facility on the waterfront be rejuvenated, especially with the historic aspect we do have," said commissioner Barry Eldridge.
Agni and Faulkner have ambitious plans for the sprawling site, which they have tentatively named Kenai Landing.
"One of most difficult things about this project is scaling it to reality," Faulkner said.
"The site is so grand and there's so much opportunity you could get really lost by not focusing on precise and achievable goals," Agni said.
Several of their goals require participation from the public and businesses since the bulk of the services and activities that are planned for the site will be offered by outside groups who contract or lease with Kenai Landing.
"This is one of those things that is highly difficult without the support of the community," Faulkner said.
Fish processing will continue at the site, though not to the capacity it once did. Faulkner said he and Agni hope to bring in a value-added microprocessor company that will process both commercial- and sport-caught fish and operate a retail component where they sell fish products over-the-counter.
"It is in our financial interest to maintain processing at some level," Agni said. "I think economics will tell us it will not be at the level it was."
Dovetailing with the processing element of Kenai Landing will be reinstating the use of the dock facilities on the Kenai River. Agni said they hope to install floating docks and a boat launch ramp into the river. Installing a ramp will take permits that they do not currently have but plan to apply for, Faulkner said.
Other river-related activities that are envisioned for the site are guided sport fishing and perhaps a water taxi operation similar to what exists in Kachemak Bay.
"The ability to enjoy the river and get to the river is of course important to the site," Agni said.
Recreation will be available in many forms at Kenai Landing, possibly including horseback riding, a ropes course and climbing wall. A main portion of the activities will be related to youth camps that Agni and Faulkner plan to establish at the site. The camps likely would be outdoor-based and could include fishing instruction, where campers would learn boating and fishing skills, as well as the ethics of ecology and stewardship, Faulkner said.
The availability of arts and entertainment are central to the plans for Kenai Landing. The promenade area of the site is planned to be developed into something similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle. Faulkner said they plan to have 30 to 50 small retail spaces to lease to vendors and are soliciting statements of interest from individuals and companies wanting to providing anything from visual arts and crafts to bread baking and coffee roasting.
Agni said in time they hope to cultivate a professional exchange where artists from across the state and the Lower 48 come to stay at the site and create their art in studio space as well as sell it at the promenade along with local artists.
"Cross fertilization with different artists is something artists enjoy," Agni said.
There will be a stage for bands to perform as well as plans for building a theater. Faulkner said he hopes to eventually have some kind of entertainment going on at least four or five nights a week.
Lodging also will be available at Kenai Landing, including an RV park, mid-level hotel rooms with private baths and more historic, limited-service rooms. In the first few years, Alaskans will be targeted as the bulk of the visitors and Faulkner said he does not plan the site to be a group tour destination.
Food will be available in a buffet-style, limited-service venue as well as a brew-pub restaurant. Faulkner said they plan to apply for a liquor license and attract a brewer to operate at the site.
Agni and Faulkner have a three-year plan for getting Kenai Landing up and running. They expect to have at least the lodging and promenade aspect of Kenai Landing operational by Memorial Day .
"We will have beer taps flowing," Faulkner said.
In three years, they plan to have made at least 75 percent of the rest of their plans into reality. Kenai Landing will employ between 25 and 50 people and operate seasonally at first, but some of the services like processing may eventually operate year-round.
Since the site incorporates a hodgepodge of buildings, some of which date from the 1920s, extensive renovation is planned. Some environmental cleanup of contamination from heating oil and diesel fuel also will be necessary. Agni said they will invest millions of dollars renovating the facilities.
"There's always concern and anxiety that you're going to bite off more than you can chew, but I'm confident because the site has so many possible attractions," Agni said. He added that the attractions planned for Kenai Landing already exist and have proven successful in other parts of the state.
Throughout all the work that will be done to change Wards Cove into Kenai Landing, an eye will be kept on preserving its historic appeal. The exterior of many of the structures will be maintained and Agni and Faulkner plan to establish a museum area as well as look into getting some of the buildings included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Faulkner said he hopes the public and city of Kenai will partner with them to help reconstruct the site's far-reaching history.
"It's huge," he said. "It's 100 years of history. It's not lost, but it's here, there and everywhere. ... I believe, if done right, (Kenai Landing) will be a major attraction just by virtue of its historic value."
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