Last month, the City of Soldotna and the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce partnered for a voucher program that encouraged residents to spend their money at local businesses.
The “Holding Our Own Shop Local” program, which ended in December, was suggested by Shanon Davis, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber, and inspired by a similar program that took place in Haines earlier in the year.
Anyone who spent $200 on discretionary, nonessential items at locally owned businesses could then receive two $50 vouchers from the city, which could be used at any of the participating businesses. The City of Kenai is considering a similar program for its local businesses this spring. The Kenai City Council will be voting on the program Jan. 6.
The Clarion spoke to seven of the 58 participating business owners this week to learn about the impact the vouchers had during an otherwise difficult year, and to learn about the people behind some of Soldotna’s local establishments.
AK Sk8 Shop
Heidi Hanson has been the owner of the AK Sk8 Shop since March of 2017, when she purchased the hockey equipment store from its previous owners. Hanson has lived on the peninsula since 1989, and she has three brothers who are also business owners in the area.
Being a hockey player for the last 20 years and working for the Kenai River Brown Bears hockey team as the general manager of their pull tab and merchandise store, the sport has long been a central part of Hanson’s life. To her, purchasing the skate shop made perfect sense.
Prior to 2020, business was good at the skate shop, which is located right next to the ice rink inside the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. People coming to the sports complex to skate would naturally find themselves in Hanson’s shop to buy equipment. Hanson’s biggest challenge was getting supplies shipped to Alaska from outside the state.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the peninsula, and the City of Soldotna closed the Sports Complex to the public in order to mitigate the number of large indoor gatherings happening in the area. With no one on the ice, no one was coming into Hanson’s shop.
Hanson said she saw the impact immediately once the voucher program was launched.
“December was absolutely a blessing and it was a lifesaver,” Hanson said.
“It was the vouchers and Christmas, because the vouchers brought people into shop, and then they came back and shopped again. Like I said, December was absolutely amazing.”
People were mostly buying new skates, Hanson said, as well as some of her photography prints, calendars and other things around the shop. The first check Hanson received from the city was for $100, and she continued receiving checks each week for a total of about $1,700 for the duration of the program.
Kate’s Flowers and Gifts
Jeff Mastre, owner of Kate’s Flowers and Gifts, said on Saturday that taking advantage of the program was a “no-brainer” for customers who were likely to spend that much for their holiday shopping anyway.
Mastre purchased his flower shop from its previous owner about four years ago, after his family had moved up to Alaska from Colorado in 2008. He named the store after his daughter, Kate, who was already working at the shop under the old owners and therefore had the most floral experience in the family.
Mastre said that the store did well this year, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Keeping a stock of fresh flowers in Alaska is challenging enough in a normal year, but this year Mastre said he noted a slight increase in his sales, possibly because people were sending flowers to their loved ones in lieu of traveling to see them. While he hadn’t yet counted up the total amount in vouchers that Kate’s Flowers received, Mastre said the program definitely had an impact on the store’s winter foot traffic, and he was glad to see the positive impact it had on the community as a whole.
The program ended on Dec. 16, and in a Dec. 21 newsletter the Soldotna Chamber announced that $289,400 in vouchers were given out by the city, which invested an extra $100,000 in the program after its initial popularity.
Acapulco Mexican Restaurant
Juan Rodriguez, owner of Acapulco Mexican Restaurant in Soldotna, said that his business received $6,200 from the city as part of the program, which was a big boost during what are normally the slowest months of the year.
“From October to March, when it’s the winter and it snows, people are afraid to drive and come to restaurants,” Rodriguez said. “Especially mine, up here on the hill.”
Rodriguez is originally from Mexico, and became a citizen of the United States when he was 16.
“I remember watching TV with my brother and my dad when I was 10 years old, and there was a show that came on about Alaska.
“My dad told us ‘If you ever go to the states, go all the way to Alaska. Not L.A. or Texas, all the way to Alaska’.”
Rodriguez followed his father’s advice and flew from Morro Bay, California to Dutch Harbor as a teenager, where he worked in a cannery and then as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea for over a decade.
“I made some money doing that and then I heard that Soldotna had a restaurant for sale,” Rodriguez said. “It was Halloween Day in 2000, and I started working in the restaurant even though we didn’t know anything about it. And now the rest is history.”
Rodriguez has since raised his three kids — Juan, Jr., Luis Miguel and Andrea — here on the peninsula, and he said there’s nowhere else he’d rather live.
Lucy’s Market and River City Books
Morgan Davies, co-owner of Lucy’s Market, said the vouchers went a long way in bringing new faces to the restaurant.
“I think people maybe saw our name on the list and just thought ‘I’ve never been there, maybe I’ll pick them up,’” Davies said Saturday. “So we got to see a lot of new customers.”
Lucy’s Market shares a building with River City Books, which also participated in the voucher program. Davies said that both businesses benefited from each other during the uptick in sales brought by the vouchers.
Peggy Mullen, who owns River City Books, said that the advent of e-readers was nearly the end of local bookstores like hers, but one silver lining to a year like 2020 is that people seem to be reading more books.
“We’ve had a lot of home-schooling parents and school district orders,” Mullen said Saturday. “Just in general in its been a blessing, especially with the boost from the vouchers.”
Mountain Magic Massage
Heather Rasch, owner of Mountain Magic Massage, said that she saw a mix of new and returning customers. The vouchers helped turn one-time customers into regular clients.
Rasch had to close her massage parlor at the beginning of the pandemic for about six weeks due to health mandates implemented by the State of Alaska, but she said that business has since returned to normal, thanks in part to the voucher program.
“People are just ready to be back and receive touch,” Rasch said. “The pandemic has been super hard on so many people, and they’re just ready to be touched again.”
Pamela Parker, owner of Everything Bagels, said gift cards were a popular purchase at her shop, considering that a bagel costs slightly less than the $50 provided by the vouchers.
“You spend $4 on a bagel and cream cheese, so what do you do with the rest of the voucher?” Parker said Saturday. “But we did use the rest of that and turned it into gift cards for folks, and some people came in specifically to get smaller increments of gift cards to give out to their friends and family. And then we had some people that came in and treated their whole office to breakfast.”
Parker opened Everything Bagels in 2016, shortly after she and her husband moved to Soldotna. The couple quickly noticed a lack of fresh bagels available in the area, so they saw an opportunity to go into business.
“We honestly just wanted a bagel one morning when we were going out for a hike after we moved here from the East Coast,” Parker said. “We were used to just being able to pop in somewhere and grab a quick breakfast before heading out to do things. We looked up where we could get a bagel near us and there wasn’t anywhere nearby.”
Parker has since settled her young family in Soldotna, where she currently serves as a city council member as well as the president of the Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Parker recused herself from the council’s approval of the program due to her roles both at the chamber and as a business owner, but she said she was glad that the program was successful in its mission.
“It was around the holidays so folks were already going to be out shopping,” Parker said. “Why not reward our local residents for shopping local and spending their money here? It just really felt like a win for everybody.”