This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion. 

Kenai is open for business.

Several entrepreneurs have chosen to set up shop in Kenai, like the new Brothers’ Cafe, Puffin Chiropractor, and Magical Gardens. However, a former Pizza Hut restaurant, Carl’s Jr. drive-thru, Lowe’s Home Improvement store, and a bowling alley still sit empty along with other vacant buildings, storefronts and facilities.

For Kenai, these properties mean potential. The city administration is working on several projects to match entrepreneurs with parcels that will work for them and their business.

One of the biggest projects the city is undertaking is compiling data on all city-owned land and what it could be best used for, Christine Cunningham, assistant to the city manager of Kenai, said.

“The city is a major landowner,” Cunningham said. “One of the things the city can do is get those lands working, whether they are through leases or ownership by businesses.”

The city is considering creating a brochure featuring the compiled data to allow residents to easily see where they could develop a business on city-owned land. Cunningham said the city created a temporary position that will help the city in identifying and researching the best uses of city-owned land, which consists of more than 300 parcels.

“When people come with ideas, we can say here’s what we have in terms of land and in terms of programs,” Cunningham said.

Potential commercial, retail and industrial space exists outside of the city domain as well. Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said there is also a significant number of privately owned parcels.

“There’s a lot of vacant land in the city that I see as an opportunity for businesses to come here,” Ostrander said.

Cunningham said Kenai is unique in the sheer amount of land they own. In 1963, the Federal Aviation Administration deeded the city of Kenai ownership of land surrounding the Kenai Municipal Airport.

Some airport land cannot be purchased, but it can be leased. Cunningham said the city recently implemented some code changes that give credits to businesses who develop airport land. Now, the city administration is now looking at its land policies beyond the airport.

City Planner Elizabeth Appleby said the administration is also working towards updating city sign and land codes to work better for businesses.

The bluff stabilization project is another important factor the city must take into account when attempting to attract new businesses. Appleby said the bluff project will secure a stable environment for someone to invest in.

“We have this amazing view, and if we can confirm that the land isn’t going to be eroding away, we can sell that land,” Appleby said. “In addition to just being able to sell land there, confirming it can’t erode could also spur reinvestment and economic development, even trails planning in the area.”

In Old Town Kenai, the amount of capital investment over the last 30 years has been minimal, Ostrander said.

“The biggest driver there is the uncertainty of that erosion,” Ostrander said. “Resolving that has been the number one priority, as far as capital projects go, for at least 30 years and we’re really close now to making that a reality. That will spur development in an area that arguably is the most dramatic and valuable part of the city, as far as land goes.”

Cunningham and Appleby said they are also working to promote what’s attractive about Kenai, including beaches, Old Town Kenai, a balance of local businesses and national chains, easy access to the outdoors while still having access to a highway system and reliable air travel.

“I think there are things here that other places don’t have and we should embrace that more fully and communicate that to people,” Appleby said.

Besides policies and projects, Ostrander said the city is changing their attitude in an effort to be friendlier to business developers.

“What we’re trying to accomplish when new businesses come to town, is that we’re really helping them through the process — rather than the attitude that’s, you know, ‘Here’s a packet, with information. Fill it out and come back,’” Ostrander said. “We help them through the process. If they run into hurdles, we help them get over them. It sounds a little corny, but we’re trying to partner with these businesses to make sure they are successful if they want to come to the city.”

Tuesday night, the city hosted a Policy with a Pint event for the public to gather and discuss ways of improving the city. Appleby and Cunningham helped facilitate the discussion.

“The Policy with a Pint event was an informal way to engage with citizens and promote the sharing of creative ideas for the city during Startup Week,” Appleby said. “I have observed events similar to Policy with a Pint in other communities where various policy alternatives were discussed or presented, and I wanted to try this in Kenai to see what sort of feedback we could generate.

Appleby said the city came away with 26 ideas and suggestions for the city of Kenai to consider, including city-sponsored events, partnering with developers, creating rent-to-own opportunities, creating incentives for restoring abandoned or distressed buildings, creating a walkable downtown space, improving public transportation between Kenai and Soldotna and others ideas.

“In Kenai, we’ve long said that we are open for business, but now we can say we are ready for business,” Cunningham said.

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