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Econ 919 — Ninilchik's festival season

Photo: Sabine Poux/KDLL

Ninilchik has fewer than 1,000 year-round residents.

But in the summer, the town balloons with thousands of tourists. Over two weekends in particular, during Salmonfest and the Kenai Peninsula Fair, the area’s packed with festival-goers. 

While the additional bodies — and wallets — are good for local businesses, they can also be a bit overwhelming.

“That’s just not what we’re used to dealing with," said Jenny Aamodt, campground manager at J&J Smart Charters. "So sometimes it’s a little bit of a struggle.”

This year, Salmonfest and the Kenai Peninsula Fair are on back-to-back weekends.

Rick Oliver, who co-owns the Ninilchik Thai restaurant Keen Kow, said he’s a bit frazzled.

“It’s not giving us a lot of time to recoup, replenish and resupply," he said.

Meanwhile, he’s working with less help. His business, like others across the peninsula and the country, are having trouble finding staff. 

“We do the best we can to accommodate everybody," he said. "But there are only so many people. And the rest of us just have to work that much harder.”

Luckily, he’s right next to Three Bears, so he can pop in and restock on ingredients when he needs.

Three Bears sees its own crowds on festival weekends.

“Well, we usually have enough of a heads up that we get stocked up and I bring in extra staffing for the events," said Mike Cromer, who manages the Ninilchik store.

Although these weekends are busy for Three Bears, he said others, like the Fourth of July weekend, can be even more so. 

“You know, generally, it’s a positive thing," he said. "It’s an opportunity to gain some revenue, meet some people and also get some facetime with the people so they know we’re here.”

Oliver, of Keen Kow, said he saw record levels of customers the Thursday before Salmonfest, as crews who were working the festival streamed into town before the vendors inside were set up.

But during the festival, he said, business is largely dependent on the weather. When it’s nice out, people skip the restaurants in town and beeline straight to the food at the fair.

Ross Cameron said that’s true for his business, too. He co-owns Rosco’s Pizza next door.

“Here’s the flipside to that," he said. "Is that when it’s rainy and blowy, we get mobbed.”

He said his busiest day ever was a rainy day during Salmonfest three years ago.

But it can be the opposite for the Kenai Peninsula Fair. He said people seem more likely to stay home from the fair, and from town, if it’s raining.

Rosco’s regular customers from around the peninsula usually avoid the place during festival weekends, to escape the crowds. 

“If they’re not coming to the festival, they're not coming down here," Cameron said.

Perhaps no one sees bigger business than the local lodges and campgrounds.

During a regular summer weekend, Aamodt, of J&J Smart Charters, said she might fill half of her RV sites.

For Salmonfest, she said she sold around 290 sites. 

“Every single cabin and electric spot are reserved a year in advance," she said.

She said J&J is not struggling with short staffing. But during Salmonfest, business piles up on the staff they do have.

“So to have thousands of people coming in your office one weekend and also keeping up with all the cleaning … we have to kind of divide up the duties a little more than we usually do," she said.

For some, the influx of people is a business opportunity .

This season is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the local American Legion, said Commander Tony Rea. The organization sells camping spots on its property for $150 a weekend and parking spots for $10 a day.

“I haven’t done a tally yet but, in past years, we had anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000 in donations," he said."Which, this year, is all going toward our new septic tank. So it’s a big plus for us.”

The Kenai Peninsula Fair is today, Saturday and Sunday at the fairgrounds in Ninilchik.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at
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