Kenai’s airport, small business community and future decisions on the marijuana industry are all things to invest time in, according to the five candidates running for the city’s two open council seats.
With current Kenai vice mayor Brian Gabriel throwing his hat into the mayoral race and council member Terry Bookey not running for re-election, two seats on the council are left without incumbent candidates. The two candidates who get the most votes during the Oct. 4 regular municipal election will fill those seats.
Four of the five council hopefuls answered questions and explained why they think they would be best for the job during a Wednesday luncheon and forum at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Candidate Glenese Pettey, a Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission member, submitted a prerecorded video of her pitch for a seat on the council, which was played at the luncheon’s outset. She said in the video bluff stabilization, a balanced budget, making sure the personal-use dipnet fishery runs smoothly and advocating for senior citizens and veterans are among her priorities as a candidate.
Kenai’s airport, the city’s central location on the Kenai Peninsula and the personal-use dipnet fishery were all identified by the candidates as the city’s largest strengths. The candidates said supporting the airport, transportation and services enjoyed by peninsula residents outside the city will be a way to help the city grow economically.
“When you go to Soldotna, the city there is crowded. It’s all sitting right on the highway, on both highways,” said Jason Floyd, owner of Ammo Can Coffee in Soldotna. “In Kenai we have these broad avenues. We have city planners who’ve done a good job laying out our city.”
Floyd said between capitalizing on this layout, the city’s “dramatic views,” the Kenai River and transportation and incentivizing more businesses to come to the area, Kenai can improve is economic growth.
Candidate Bob McIntosh pointed to Kenai’s central or “business” district as a place where revitalization and building front improvement could be a boon to the economy.
“Though we have to be careful we don’t artificially encourage businesses and traffic that we cannot sustain, because that will only harm the city, not help the city,” he said.
McIntosh said one of Kenai’s biggest weaknesses is the lack of a real business plan for the city, which he said has been working off of a “if we build it, they will come” mentality. The other candidates echoed this idea as one of the city’s biggest areas to work on — Floyd said Kenai does not effectively keep its young people around after they graduate and needs to attract businesses that will provide jobs for the area.
“A business plan focusing on the economic growth is kind of needed,” said Christine Hutchison, a member of Kenai’s Harbor Commission. “That would include the airport, the industrial site, the (Kenai Outdoor Opportunity Location) program, just to focus on what we want.”
In the formation of any plan related to the city’s economics, Hutchison said the city should give plenty of opportunity for public input. She, like, Floyd, emphasized the importance of cultivating a good environment for small businesses and finding ways to keep them in Kenai long-term.
Two other major Kenai topics the candidates addressed were and how the fledgling cannabis industry should fit into the town. Most of them said they are fine with the industry in Kenai as long as it is done correctly and watched closely.
“I don’t care either way. The state passed the law,” McIntosh said. “We can opt out of it if we want — I think the voters should do that, to opt out. And also that store … that’s already there … since the store has been approved, even if the city does opt out, that store should stay there. We should not be in the business of destroying businesses.”
Floyd disagreed with the other candidates on the issue of marijuana. The peninsula as a whole voted against the industry, he said, and so the question should be put back to voters. Floyd said that if there are people thinking that money from the cannabis industry is “going to give us some kind of windfall, they’re sadly mistaken. The costs far outweigh the benefits.”
James Glendening, also a member of the planning and zoning commission, pointed out that Red Run Cannabis Company, a retail marijuana establishment which has applied to open in Kenai, has “jumped through all the hoops” to keep up with state requirements so far.
“In our town, the voters passed it,” Glendening said. “They accepted the cannabis industry and all the benefits and the big problems that are coming with it.”
Glendening and the other candidates also voiced their support of Kenai’s consideration of offers to purchase city-owned land.
“We need to have a fair program and process for our lease holders, property for sale, and decide what we want to retain,” Glendening said.
Hutchison and McIntosh said selling city-owned land should be done cautiously so as to protect the city’s interests in the future, and should not be done without getting thorough development plans. Overall, the candidates agreed it could be a good move for Kenai.
“I don’t think that the city should be in the business of being a landlord,” Floyd said. “I believe that when you properly incentivize private industry they do very well for themselves, and when they do well for themselves it does well for all the residents of the city.”
All the candidates spoke of a need to better engage with the business community, whether through surveys or a committee, to find out what kind of policies would best suit them to thrive. Though Floyd said he believes government should stay out of business as much as possible, he also spoke of creating a more business-friendly atmosphere in town.
“Kenai is not as friendly as some people would say it is, and I would like us to be known as the friendliest little city on the peninsula,” he said.