During the first in-person luncheon in several months, members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce met at the Visitor and Cultural Center in Old Town Kenai to speak with the elected officials of the city.
About 30 people attended the luncheon, which still had certain COVID-19 mitigation measures in place. Most attendees sat four to a table. Hand sanitizer was placed around the room, and the caterers and visitor center staff wore face coverings for the duration of the luncheon.
Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel briefly spoke in front of the crowd and introduced the city’s council members present: Henry Knackstedt, Jim Glendening, Teea Winger, Victoria Askin and Bob Malloy. Council member Glenese Pettey was not in attendance.
“It is nice to see everybody getting back together,” Gabriel said on Wednesday. “It’s nice to see familiar faces, and hopefully as we roll on we can come out of this (pandemic). Our numbers are down, resources are not being pressed in the hospital, and those are all good things. We want to make sure we can continue that trajectory to get businesses back to normal, or as normal as they can be.”
Winger and Askin are both serving their first terms as city council members. Winger won her seat during the municipal election last October. Askin was appointed following the resignation of former council member Robert Peterkin last year.
Both said that they have had to “hit the ground running” on the city council, with the pandemic and its many impacts on the local economy. Recently, Winger has been pushing to substantially increase the amount of money the city plans to spend on its “shop local” voucher program.
“I’m very passionate about getting that million dollars back out to small businesses, and then everything else will kind of fall in line from there,” Winger said. “Going into this new year I’m 100% committed and focused on small business.”
The city is sitting on over $1.1 million in its general fund that was unused from CARES Act allocations by the federal and state governments. Winger wants most of that to go into the voucher program. As of Wednesday, the city is set to spend $115,000 on the program. Winger is proposing a budget of $1,040,000.
When asked if she had support from other council members for this increase in spending, Winger said that other members would prefer to spend the money on capital projects.
“I think we should take care of our small businesses first, and then start looking at those important capital projects,” Winger said. “I do support them, but I can’t support them over small business.”
Askin said that during her brief time as a council member, she has become concerned about the reputation that the city has with some business owners in the community.
“I really want to see us benefit our small businesses as much as we can,” Askin said. “I’ve been hearing that we don’t have a good reputation with our small businesses, and I’d like to understand that better. I’d like to know what we can say or change to make that better.”
Both Winger and Askin said that they would like to see more participation from the general public in the city’s affairs. Askin recognized that the challenges of everyday life can make that difficult, but Winger said that the public’s influence can make a difference when council members make decisions about issues such as mask mandates — or how much to spend on a voucher program.
“Participation just across the board on anything is key,” Winger said. “I believe that we should hear from both sides of an issue so that we can make a better informed decision. We’ll have budget discussions in the coming months, and those are open for people to come and sit through and help us. We need more accountability from our people and to have a voice for their needs as well.”
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org.