Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce is still working on plans for its new visitor center and pitching a bed tax in Soldotna to help support it.

The chamber of commerce debuted its “future site of” sign for the planned visitor center near Soldotna Creek Park, as well as launched its Vision Soldotna website in a presentation during a chamber luncheon in Soldotna on Wednesday. Vision Soldotna is the nonprofit entity of “community and business members” raising money for the visitor and community center through grants and private donations, according to support documents the chamber presented at the luncheon.

The proposed center would cost approximately $5.1 million. The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce is putting $500,000 towards the project, while the rest of the funding will need to come from private donations, grants and the city of Soldotna. Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Director Shanon Davis said the organization is still working toward a financial commitment with the city and is formally requesting a $1.2 million contribution. The building would be owned by the city and managed by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

To offset operating costs if the center is built, the chamber is exploring a temporary lodging tax, or bed tax, that would need Soldotna City Council approval, Davis said.

Taxable sales on accommodations in Soldotna totaled $4,463,468 in 2017, according to a financial analysis in the Vision Soldotna document. A 4 percent bed tax could generate $178,539 for the city. The chamber would hope to pair that revenue with income from facility rentals of the visitor center and use to support operating and maintenance costs. The surplus of revenue would be $134,700 for the first year of the center’s operation and then decreasing the second year to $87,920 after a facilities manager is hired, according to Vision Soldotna’s financial analysis.

In addition to the city support, the chamber is taking on a capital campaign to seek donors. The Vision Soldotna group also hired a capital campaign coordinator to help the board identify fundraising strategies and establish partnerships to help raise money for the project.

Juneau architecture firm MRV Architecture designed the renderings of the proposed visitor and community center. The design of the two-story, 9,983-square-foot building features a glass facade that faces towards the river, ample restrooms, workrooms, conference rooms, exhibit space, a viewing deck, a commercial kitchen, ballrooms and event space and leaves room to expand in the future.

The site next to the park was originally chosen by a site selection committee in 2013. Six locations in Soldotna were considered, with the Davis Block and Concrete property in downtown Soldotna adjacent to Soldotna Creek Park making the final cut. In 2013, the city purchased the property for nearly $1 million. Plans for the new visitor center began in 2015, with a rendering that would have cost an estimated $14 million. Since then, the cost and amenities of the building have been scaled down due to the current economic climate, Davis said.

Throughout the process, Davis mentioned one the biggest concerns from the public regards parking.

“Over and over I’m hearing that we can’t lose that parking,” Davis said.

Davis said the project wouldn’t take away any parking, but instead turn a gravel pit into additional parking space.

“We’re taking what was maybe a problem area and turning it into something beautiful,” Davis said.

Soldotna currently has a visitor center on the corner of the Sterling Highway and K-Beach Road, with river access via a boardwalk and stairs popular among anglers. The 1,100 square foot building was originally designed to accommodate 8,000 visitors annually but now accommodates over 40,000, according to the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

Davis said access to the current visitor center is poor and that restroom capacity is minimal. Nuses carrying visitors no longer stop at the visitor center due to “poor access and not enough bathrooms.” Instead, she said, the buses stop at Safeway to allow visitors a break.

“What kind of impression are we giving when visitors are being dropped off in the Safeway parking lot?” Davis said.

The chamber of commerce hopes to start construction for the project in the fall of 2019 or the spring of 2020.

An economic benefit analysis by the McDowell Group shows an impact of $800,000 in taxable sales within 10 years.

Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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