Residents of Kenai gathered in the frigid predawn hours of Saturday morning to gaze into the future.
It wasn't a mysterious Halloween rite of some sort, rather a community meeting as part of the city's comprehensive plan, which is being developed now.
Organized by Kevin Waring, an Anchorage consultant hired to compile the plan, the meeting at the Kenai Senior Center drew about 80 participants.
Mayor John Williams welcomed the residents, saying this comprehensive plan will be an honest and realistic look into the future.
"The problem in the past has been that many times what we've put together is a look into the rearview mirror and compliment ourselves on what we've done," he said.
Williams said he expects dramatic change in the next few years as the state and local economies change.
"We need to take a look at what Kenai will look like in the future and be realistic about it," he said. "And once we get a handle on that, we have to come to grips with how to pay for it."
Waring said the comprehensive plan, due to be finished in early summer, will try to look 20 years into Kenai's future.
"We would like to hear what the values and goals are that you hold for your community. The reasons why you came here and why you stay here," Waring said of the plan. "Then it is up to the city and its residents to be diligent and hard working in implementing it."
"Developing a comprehensive plan is one of the most important, vital and fun projects a city can take on," said city manager Linda Snow. "But it can be difficult and can be politically sensitive and divisive."
She described the comprehensive plan as the blueprint the city council, city committees, commissions and staff will use to guide the growth of the city.
"That's how important this is," Snow said.
Dick LaFever, a professional facilitator from Anchorage, split the those in attendance into a dozen six-person tables to brainstorm three different topics: Quality of life, land use and public improvements.
The ideas and solutions to improve the city in all three areas often overlapped. For instance, promoting the arts and Kenai as the art and culture hub of the central peninsula came up numerous times. So did protecting the bluff with a seawall, attracting business back to the core of downtown, and maintaining quality of life in neighborhoods with buffer space between them and business districts.
There was limited support for developing business down the Kenai Spur Highway toward Kenai Central High School and guarded support for developing the 19 acres on the bluff near the senior center the mayor refers to as Millennium Square.
Many of the comments supported filling the many vacant buildings in downtown and revitalizing the area.
"We want a compact and 'living' downtown," said one table's spokesperson, explaining they want filled, active commercial buildings instead of vacant ones or new development.
"We need to revitalize the pre-80s parts of town," another said.
Hand in hand with identifying and rejuvenating downtown is creating a community gathering place. Some in the audience remembered when the Kenai Mall was the center of town, before most of the stores moved out, and want to see something like that again.
"We need a variety of industries and businesses, not just those dependent on oil, fishing or tourism," said a table's spokesperson.
Other suggestions included picking up road sand in the spring, paving dirt roads, creating a four-lane highway to Soldotna, a truck bypass to and from Nikiski and plowing sidewalks in the winter.
That last suggestion was the only one that got spontaneous applause from the participants.
Trails of all types, including new coastal and Bridge Access Road trails, were high priorities for most, as were preserving historic trails. Creating neighborhood parks and preserving other areas of green space also got high marks.
Expanding the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center was suggested, as was expanding, and perhaps moving to Old Town, the Kenai Community Library.
"A city without arts and culture has no soul," said one of the groups.
Building more senior housing, including an assisted-living center, and more health service facilities were also high on many lists.
One group suggested phasing out mineral extraction -- meaning gravel pits -- inside the city.
Another group suggested a road extension from Captain Cook State Park, at the north end of the Spur Highway, to Hope, creating a scenic loop.
To spur housing development inside the city, the interest rate penalty the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation has in place for loans in urban areas like Kenai must be eliminated. Current interest rates in the cities are about 1 percent higher than in rural areas.
The city should also conduct more surveys of its residents regarding their vision for quality of life and land use. City hall should also have expanded hours to better serve residents who can't make it there during regular business hours. There should also be more enforcement of quality of life laws that are already on the books. They include cleaning debris and junk cars from yards.
"Clearly there is a lot of caring for what you have now," Waring said. "You've provided us with just the kind of grist we need."
However, he did say the dearth of young people is a concern.
"I wish there were more youth, young adults and young families represented," he said. "I like getting people thinking about the future for their children and grandchildren."
The participants were mostly age 40 and up.
The report from the Saturday session will be complied in a few weeks and presented to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. There will be several drafts of the comprehensive plan, with a final draft done by Memorial Day. Then the city council will take it up and approve it or suggest changes. There will be several more meetings where the public can provide input, though not necessarily like Saturday's forum.
All written comments from the meeting will be compiled and within two weeks be posted on the city's World Wide Web site, at: www.ci.kenai.ak.us.
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