Econ 919 — How the Kenai Peninsula Works

9:01 a.m. and 5:01 p.m. Fridays
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Econ 919 is a weekly economic report for the Kenai Peninsula from the KDLL News Team.

Ninety days before it was finished, a new apartment complex on Redoubt Avenue in Kenai already had a waitlist.

“We had people, the contractor and construction crew had people coming by throughout last summer, wanting to know when they were going to get done and when they could sign up," said Steven Rouse. He's executive director of Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiatives, a Homer-based nonprofit with affordable housing complexes across the peninsula.


An Alaska resident last year would have to pay $29 for a sport fishing license. Same goes for the 14 years before that. 

This year, the same license costs $20. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game scrapped the surcharge after paying off a bond debt on the construction of two hatcheries.

But the reduction might just be temporary. Legislators are considering levying another, smaller surcharge on those licenses this summer. This time, the charge would fund maintenance projects at sport fish hatcheries around the state. 


Sales tax is important on the Kenai Peninsula. Borough sales tax translates to funding for schools.

Officials anticipated a drop in sales tax revenue during the pandemic. Recently released data show the taxable sales reported to the borough in 2020 were down over $116 million from 2019, a change of 10 percent. In Homer, the difference was 8 percent. In Seward, it was a 35 percent difference.

But those losses were not equally distributed. The cities of Kenai and Soldotna saw their taxable sales slightly increase from 2019 to 2020.

Ashley Olanna

The Alaska SeaLife Center was in dire straits last summer. Without a steady stream of summer visitors, the Seward nonprofit was bringing in a fraction of its normal revenue. 

To keep afloat, the center needed to raise $2 million in donations and memberships. In under three months, it brought in twice that and tripled its members.

SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer said they were floored by the support.


Somehow, between helping with the census and distributing tens of millions in Alaska CARES funding, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District also built a website. 

It’s called “Kenai Peninsula Workforce” and it’s a site for connecting peninsula residents with job opportunities and training. It goes live next week.


Charlissa Magen

It was the middle of the pandemic and parents were exhausted. Chera Wackler was home with her 8-year-old twins. 

“A lot of us parents were like, ‘I’m out of ideas,’" she said. "We’ve made the goop, we’ve made soap, we’ve tie dyed t-shirts. You know, I’m running out.”


If you were a city or borough official in 2020, you had a hard task in front of you — divvy up CARES Act funds without knowing how much demand there would be for each program.

Sometimes, cities underestimated that need. The city of Kenai set aside $400,000 for its rent and mortgage relief program last fall. As more calls came in and the demand became apparent, it upped the ante to $1 million.


The governor proposed cutting six DMV offices out of the state budget this year, including the office in Homer, a two-person operation on Lake Street.

It’s one of the easier-to-reach communities with a DMV on the list. Also at stake is the DMV in Haines, a ferry ride away from the nearest office in Juneau. 

Residents say they’re not thrilled about the cuts. But the state has been eyeing another idea: instead of closing up shop completely, shift some DMV services to private businesses.


Sabine Poux/KDLL

Mama Cupcake is a fluffy white Angora rabbit who lives in Cooper Landing. 

On Tuesday afternoon, she was snuggled up with three of her newborns in a big blue bucket.

“I left most of her babies at home, because we’re in the process of weening,” said Rachel Sullivan. She’s the owner of these bunnies and of Hibernation Textiles, a Cooper Landing-based small business.


The peninsula has most of what it needs for an emergency cold weather shelter. 

“The food bank is ready, willing and able to provide the evening meal and a light breakfast to go in the mornings. We have transportation available through a couple different avenues," said Leslie Rohr. She's executive director of Love INC, one of several peninsula groups that are spearheading the initiative to get a shelter going this winter.

What they’re missing is a space. And there’s not much that can happen without one.


It makes sense that the Alaska Food Hub has done so well this year. The virtual farmers market uses the same sort of online delivery system that brick and mortar stores have adopted during the pandemic. It was COVID-safe before COVID even came into being.

In 2020, the Food Hub tripled its sales. And famers are reaping the benefits.


Some of the Kenai Peninsula’s best holiday shopping begins as soon as Thanksgiving ends.

That’s when artists and art lovers from as far away as Fairbanks flock to the Kenai Arts and Crafts Fair, a holiday market the Peninsula Art Guild has put on for over four decades.

It usually fills the halls of Kenai Central High School the last weekend of November, said board president Marion Nelson.


Courtesy of Sara Erickson

Fish skin is hardly a hot commodity. Processors like Kenai’s Pacific Star Seafoods usually grind up and discard the stuff once they’ve separated it from the meaty goodness that goes to market.

But these days, Pacfic Star is selling more than 3,600 pounds of cod and halibut skin to Sara Erickson, owner of the dog treat business AlaSkins. Erickson orders another 2,550 pounds of skin from Icicle Seafoods in Seward and 300 pounds each from 10th and M and Cooper River Seafoods in Anchorage.


Sabine Poux/KDLL

If you’ve traveled the Kenai Peninsula, you’ve passed Wildman’s in Cooper Landing. If you’ve been hungry after a hike, had to use the bathroom on the way to Anchorage or needed a lift from your boat to your car, you may have even stopped in. Perhaps you never make it past mile 47.5 without pulling over for a waffle cone or cup of Kaladi Brothers Coffee.

Love the place enough and it could be yours, for $1.4 million. Owner Cheryle James put the Sterling Highway mainstay on the market two and a half years ago.


Courtesy of Virginia Morgan

Each of the Kenai Peninsula’s cities has its own public library. But folks living in unincorporated communities need not travel all the way to Kenai, Soldotna, Seward or Homer to borrow a book.

Anchor Point, Cooper Landing, Kasilof, Moose Pass, Nikiski and Ninilchik have their own libraries. Unlike their city-funded counterparts, these libraries rely on grants and donations for support.


Following a spring and summer of uncertainty, the last thing any business owner wants is to have to close up shop again due to a coronavirus exposure.

Willow King chose to make the best of it when she shuttered her catering business Where It’s At temporarily in October. The Soldotna-based chef also works at The Flats restaurant, which saw an employee test positive as a crush of COVID-19 cases started sweeping the Kenai Peninsula last month.


To get into the “Peninsula ~ Free ~ Buy ~ Sell ~ Trade” Facebook group, you’ve first got to go through Rookie. Rookie, who’s been going by that name both on and offline for years, is one of the group’s administrators and de-facto bouncers. 

“If you’re in Anchorage, sorry. If you’re in Utah, nope. Florida, I don’t think so," she said. "It’s carefully guarded so only people on the peninsula can be members.”

To date, a whopping 18,700 Kenai Peninsula residents are members. 


Courtesy of Nikki Corbett

In a purple qaspeq with blue trim and patterned patches, Nikki Corbett and her sewing machine greet her YouTube subscribers.

“Hi, it’s Nikki with Sew Yup’ik. And today I’m going to show you, I’m going to record a video in various parts. So this first part I’m going to show you how to add the trimming onto your traditional qaspeq.”

She instructs viewers in this video, almost 500 of them, how to make a qaspeq, a hooded garment with a large front pocket and hood typically worn by Yup’ik men and women. 


This year’s commercial salmon harvest was bad. Really bad.

The harvest in Upper Cook Inlet was reportedly the lowest since 1971, with drift gillnet and east side setnet harvests 86 percent lower than their respective recent 10-year averages. On top of that, the price for sockeye salmon paled in comparison with recent years.

That burden hits close to home for a lot of Kenai Peninsula fishermen. At the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting Tuesday, representatives from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association called on the assembly to request that the state of Alaska declare an economic disaster for Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries. 

It’s been a tradition for the last 50 years that the owners of Kenai Fabric Center raise their kids in the store. Geneva Stasek bought the place in 1970 and her three daughters, Wendy McGahan, Gwen Woodard and Lynn Dykema, worked and sewed there until they ran it themselves. Their kids and grandkids were later folded into the business, spending time with aunts and cousins at the Willow Street storefront.

But that pattern will repeat no longer. The store will close its doors for good Oct. 31. While owners were close to selling  earlier this fall, it didn’t end up working out.

Nothing I’m about to say will be journalistically neutral because Todd Ritter cooked me maybe the best breakfast I ever had.

In the kitchen of The Flats Bistro, where he was helping with dinner prep, Ritter made a breakfast that included potato hash tossed in pesto, salmon he cured in vodka, Moroccan preserved lemons and dill, and a red bell pepper sauce whose contents included ground-up sourdough bread. In case that wasn’t enough, there was a poached egg on top and bruleed bananas on the side.

 


 There’s a real method to the way this store is arranged.

“As you go around the space, you’ll see all of these beautiful pieces of art that are really inspired by Alaska. I’m looking right now at some pieces of octopus and moose and polar bears and just all of these images that we love about Alaska,” said Ana Scollon, the store’s owner. “And then, as you move around the rest of the space, my hope is that as we think about all these wonderful things that we love about Alaska, we can also … basically change some of the things that we do to protect this space.”

This is The Goods, a Soldotna shop-to-be that sells zero-waste products and local art. It’s opening Oct. 17.

Jacob Caldwell’s family purchased Kenai Aviation from Bob and Jim Bielefeld two years ago. The Bielefelds’ operation flew workers from Kenai Municipal Airport to the oil fields, but their business waned when oil companies started making their own flights in house. When the Caldwells took over, they sought to make charter flight services and pilot training part of their operations. 

And that’s exactly what they did.

Businesses and nonprofits hoping to mitigate the financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic got disappointing news last week — the $290 million Alaska CARES grant program has been “oversubscribed.” Meaning, the amount of grant requests still waiting review is greater than the amount of money left in the program.

As anyone who’s done a home improvement project knows, building materials can be expensive. And as anyone who goes to the landfill knows, people throw away perfectly good stuff.

There’s a solution to both those problems, and it now has a home in Soldotna. BuildUp opened its physical doors two weeks ago. It’s a nonprofit organization that takes donated construction items that otherwise would be headed to the dump, and sells them to the public at deep discounts.

Amy Anderson, of Anderson Custom Builders, has been frustrated for years with throwing away usable materials.  

“Just from our own jobs, the accumulation of leftover doors, windows, tile, grout, Sheetrock was piling up and a lot of it ended up at the dump because we ran out of space,” Anderson said. “I go to the CD cell probably once a week and that’s hard to do.”

 


Alaska CARES grants have been slow to get to the businesses and organizations struggling with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Legal issues have been dismissed, processing problems are being addressed and on Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed modifications to expand eligibility.

The city of Kenai has rolled out another way to boost businesses through the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s now taking applications for grants to help with online marketing and e-commerce.

“As they look to recover, marketing is going to be a key element to bringing folks into the door or growing their business, so we felt that this was something that folks probably were going to need and this was, we felt, an innovative way to get money out into the community for that specific purpose, said City Manager Paul Ostrander.

The marketing grants are $1,000 for businesses located in the city that have experienced a loss of sales or changes in their operations due to the pandemic.

The money can be spent to build or redesign websites, develop systems for online sales, expand social media marketing, improve search engine optimization or anything along those lines.

The money can’t be spent just anywhere, though. Businesses must work with Divining Point, LLC, which provides website and online marketing services in Alaska and Texas. Divining Point had a contract to update the city’s logo and marketing. Ostrander said the city issued a request for proposals for a company to do the marketing work for the grant program and Divining Point was the only proposal received.

Businesses can develop their own scope of work with Divining Point. Once the $1,000 grant is spent, they can choose to pay for additional work, or not. Applications are due Nov. 6 and the money must be spent by the end of the year.

While the coronavirus has interrupted just about every aspect of life, there is a bastion of normalcy this summer — fresh, local produce from farmers markets.

Market managers and vendors were anxious in May, not knowing how or if they’d be able to operate this summer. The markets operated differently — more spacing between booths, masks, hand sanitizer and the like. But some things haven’t changed this year — gardens are still growing and people are still shopping.

Thanks to Marti Pepper with Redoubt Realty for her perspective on the local real estate market.

It’s going to be a little less fashionable for women on the central peninsula, with a much-loved clothing design businesses leaving town. After 14 years creating colorful, cozy hoodies, pullovers, pants, skirts and more in Soldotna, Susanna Evins is buttoning up Mountain Mama Originals and selling off her fabric, trim — even her signature chunky buttons.

Her family is moving back to Montana. The move isn’t completely COVID-19 related but the pandemic has been an impetus to embrace life as it comes.

“I think that’s kind of what I’ve heard with a lot of people in the last few months. They’re kind of readjusting and figuring out, ‘OK, this means the most to me, so I if want this, then I need to make it happen,’” Evins said. “Yeah, family does (matter). And that’s where it comes down to is I want a better balance. And not even just family, I want to have time to learn other things besides just hustling and bustling, doing the same thing.”


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