Kenai nixes aid program for tourism businesses

Jun 29, 2021

Credit City of Kenai

Tourism took a serious hit last year worldwide, with travel restricted and people staying home. The Kenai Peninsula got a little bump from in-state travel traffic, but overall, it was still a pretty quiet year here, and many tourism businesses received aid through local programs supported by federal relief funds last summer and fall.

However, in Kenai, the city council thinks the tourism industry has recovered enough where they don’t need help anymore.

At its last meeting, the Kenai City Council considered an ordinance that would have set up a stimulus program for travel, tourism and hospitality services in the city intended to help lessen the impacts of the pandemic. The program would have been administered with help from the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. The proposed program would have offered tourists who purchased a single tourism, travel or hospitality service in Kenai with a participating business a second purchase at that business, underwritten by $200,000 from the city.

However, the council shot it down on recommendation from City Manager Paul Ostrander. He said that in the time since putting the proposal together, the outlook has improved a lot for the tourism businesses in the city.

"Although the data that we have is not complete, such as occupancy rates in local hotels—there are some municipalities that have that information at their fingertips, we do not have that— the information that we do have indicates that occupancy rates are very high, lodges are full, guides are across the board incredibly busy," Ostrander said. "Many of these industries that we thought would be impacted more severely by COVID, it appears that there’s an unexpected recovery of this industry."

Council member Jim Glendening agreed, saying the council could reconsider in the future if it was necessary.

"As I look around our city, I can see there is quite a bit of economic activity, and a lot of the establishments are hard-pressed to find employees to participate fully in the economic potential that is already here," he said. "I would think that any additional funding at this point in time would be redundant as to what’s already been going through our community."

Travel to Alaska has picked up as the state requirements for testing and quarantine have disappeared, and vaccination rates across the country have increased. Rental cars are nearly impossible to book, and the Transportation Security Administration in Alaska projected that travel numbers for the summer through the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage may approach 2019 numbers, which were the highest on record.

Tim Dillon, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, spoke in support of the program.

"This is another program where you guys are in front of the rest of the state," Dillon said. "I support this wholeheartedly, with what you guys are doing trying to put monies into the small businesses again, with another program. I know over the last year, there’s been a lot of changes over in the chamber. I couldn’t be happier with the chamber."

The Kenai City Council voted to postpone the ordinance indefinitely.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.