Present Kenai Mayor Pat Porter is moving to Texas after her present three-year term ends in October, creating a rare Kenai mayoral race with no incumbent.
On Wednesday, moderator Merrill Sikorski opened a discussion between Porter’s two prospective replacements with a recitation of the mayors Kenai has had in the last 30 years. It was very short: Porter has served since 2004, and before her the office had been held by John Williams since 1986.
“You guys are consistent in the city of Kenai,” Sikorski said. “So everybody knows there’s going to be a new mayor, and it’s nice that we know the two candidates as well as we do because they’ve been serving for so long.”
The candidates are Brian Gabriel — current Kenai City Council member, commercial fisherman, and foreman of the Department of Transportation’s Soldotna Station — and Hal Smalley — retired Kenai Central High School teacher and former Kenai council member, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, and member of the Alaska House of Representatives.
At the Wednesday forum, held at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitors center, the candidates were given 60 seconds to answer questions submitted by Chamber of Commerce members. Suiting the venue, many were related to the interests of businesses.
Smalley was critical the present state of Kenai’s small business economy.
“We’re losing some of our local businesses,” Smalley said. “They’re closing doors here and opening them elsewhere. We need to figure out what’s going on and get those folks back here. We have too many empty buildings. … I think that’s one of the biggest things we can do locally is turn that around. Then maybe work with the Chamber and work with the city to recruit and bring some businesses down here. We got a lot of space and a lot of it is in good shape.”
Some of those who claim Kenai’s business climate is declining have said a cause is the city’s policy of leasing land it owns to business people rather than selling businesses the land. The practice creates city revenue through yearly lease payments — much of it legally dedicated to maintaining the airport — but leaves several business owners in possession of buildings on land they don’t control, subject to increasing lease rates and a reluctant market should they choose to sell the building, critics say. Business owners on leased land have increasingly been making offers to purchase the land.
With council member Henry Knackstedt, Gabriel co-introduced an ordinance that would allow the sale of ten city-owned properties to their leasing businesses. The plan passed on Aug. 3.
“The city needs to open up more land,” Gabriel said. “We are a large land-owner. In my opinion we’ve sort of struggled with that over the past year and a half, so we need to maybe come up with a better policy to determine how or why.”
Gabriel also spoke of the difficulties of such a policy.
“One of the things we have to do as a city is determine the value of that land,” he said. “It’s difficult. There’s different criteria. … There’s people on council who want to sell, or not sell, or want a higher price or a lower price.”
Smalley said his stance on selling city land would depend on whether or not the land’s lease earnings were dedicated to the airport.
“The airport property is literally the bank account for the airport,” Smalley said. “That’s what keeps our airport alive. When you talk about the sales of said property, I’m really conservative about the (airport) reserve property. I’m kind of partial to keeping that for the airport. But there are other lands within the city, and finding the value of that land is going to merit looking at on a property-to-property, individual basis.”
Another question sought the candidates’ opinions on the Kenai Comprehensive Plan, a legal land-use document currently being revised by the Kenai city administration and waiting an approving vote from the council. The present comprehensive plan revision has been criticized for allowing an increasing mix of commercial and residential land uses, as was an attempted revision in 2013 that was rejected in a 580 to 221 vote by Kenai residents.
“The (comprehensive plan) that would be the 2016 plan looks almost just like the 2013 project that the voters turned down,” Smalley said. “So it’s got some issues that need to be ironed out. It doesn’t really speak to tourism in the plan. I think that’s a big missing element. And there’s nothing about buffers between zones.”
Gabriel used himself as an example of the concerns some citizens have about the land uses that could be enabled by the comprehensive plan. The house he and his wife have on the south side of the Kenai River borders a heavy industrial zone.
“If you look at the land-use table to determine what you can do there, the permitted uses are pretty extensive,” Gabriel said of the zoning. “So I do have concern about what’s in there.”
Gabriel is closely involved with another current issue that surfaced in the discussion — the Kenai Outdoor Opportunity Location group (KOOL), a Parks and Recreation subcommittee formed to scout locations for an outdoor stage. In early 2016, the KOOL subcommittee announced plans for the vacant bluff-top field near the senior center, known as Millennium Square, and the council subsequently dedicated $35,000 to design of the project.
The KOOL subcommittee was created with an ordinance introduced by Gabriel. He also served as the group’s chair.
Gabriel said the stage would be an economic boost.
“One the things you look at, if you look at expanding the economy, you could cherry-pick tourism as one the things you could put in motion a lot quicker than other things,” Gabriel said.
Smalley said an outdoor stage “had the potential to be a good project,” but that the chosen location is windy and too close to the seniors who wouldn’t like noise. He also said he disagreed with plans to fund the project in incremental steps because he said doing so could conceal its true cost.
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.