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Econ 919 — Waterfront revival

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 A view of the Kenai waterfront from the city's public docks. The area is currently zoned "heavy industrial."
Riley Board
A view of the Kenai waterfront from the city's public docks. The area is currently zoned "heavy industrial."

Plans to transform a mile-long stretch of Kenai River waterfront off Bridge Access Road have been floating around for a while. Now, a report is shining light on what exactly the community wants out of that waterfront area, and how to realize that vision going forward.

Over a year ago, the Kenai City Council voted to set aside $95,000 to commission a feasibility study for the project — aimed at bringing more business to the now-quiet, mostly industrial mouth of the Kenai River. The city hired the Alaska-based McKinley Research Group to do that study, which held public meetings back in February to collect feedback from locals.

In August, McKinley completed its 74-page report for the city detailing the preferred path forward, timing, funding options and public opinions.Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said the report is a good census of what the public hopes to see on that waterfront property.

“The general consensus that we got from that vision is that they’d like to see a multi-use development with retail and residential, and hopefully a walkable-type area where people could enjoy the waterfront,” he said.

Ostrander said the biggest outcome of the report so far has been getting the word out about the waterfront area as a potential place for businesses to set up shop.

He said one important next step for the city will be rezoning the 160-acre area, which is currently zoned “heavy industrial.” He said the city may look to rezone the area to a new form of mixed-use zoning that would allow the type of development the community is asking for; this type of zoning would also be a first for Kenai.

Another step the city could take is to create financial incentives for development. Ostrander said this week, city administration met internally to talk about possible tax exemptions for businesses who open up in that area.

Other than those steps, Ostrander said the city won’t play a big role in planning out the waterfront.

“I see this as a step to help developers if they are developing in a way the community wants,” he said. “A more restrictive approach, I don't think, would garner a lot of support.”

Already, some changes are happening in the waterfront area, inspired by the revitalization vision.

Ostrander said the current Port of Kenai owners are speaking to interested buyers about selling the property. He said those potential owners are interested in making changes to the port that would align with those suggested in the report.

Ostrander also said some businesses are already planning to set up shop in the area — including Nikiski-based brewery Kassik’s.

Ostrander said Kassik’s was granted a conditional use permit to open both a brewery and restaurant along the river. And he said plans have already been drawn up for the building.

At a summer planning and zoning meeting, Kassik’s owner Rick McGlasson said he thinks the new Kenai location will be a good fit for the business and said he won’t be negatively impacted by brewery licensing restrictions that would keep Alaska communities to one brewery per 9,000 residents, since there are no other breweries in Kenai.

Kenai resident and business-owner Will Jahrig sold the waterfront property to Kassik’s. He said it’s an acre-and-a-half lot off of Bridge Access Road with good views of the river. Jahrig himself is developing both a shop and home on an adjacent lot, where he said he’s already gotten permits to put in rock to protect the bluff.

Jahrig said he’s very supportive of the revitalization project as a whole.

“I’m excited about our prospects that we’ve brought along already,” he said.

Ostrander said the waterfront project goes hand-in-hand with the bluff stabilization project, which aims to slow erosion on a 5,000-foot span of bluff in Old Town Kenai that is losing about three feet to the river each year. After many years of work on the project, the city is close to securing most of the funding it needs to make it a reality.

Ostrander said there has been no capital investment in Old Town Kenai for more than three decades, as erosion threatens development. But he said once the bluff is stabilized and more businesses move onto the waterfront, Kenai could have two connected miles of scenic property that could, in the next five to 10 years, attract visitors and transform the community.

“I’m hopeful that this is the first step in what will be a transformation of that waterfront into what the community really did envision,” Ostrander said.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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