On Oct. 4 Kenai voters will chose two new city council members from the five candidates running in this year’s election. The two candidates who gather the most votes will serve three-year terms on the seven-member council, taking the seats presently held by Terry Bookey — who declined to run for re-election — and Brian Gabriel, who is running for mayor.
Two of the candidates — retired oilfield manager and business owner James Glendening and financial advisor Glenese Pettey — are presently members of Kenai’s planning and zoning commission. One, Christine Hutchison, is a present member of the Kenai Harbor Commission. Candidate Bob McIntosh is a retired Air Force serviceman and former driver for the Central Area Rural Transit System and Alaska Cab. Candidate Jason Floyd owns the Ammo Can Coffee shop and has previously been a social worker.
The candidates offer conflicting ideas of Kenai’s commercial health and how it could be maintained or improved.
Floyd described Kenai’s commercial state as “stagnant.”
“There is some development going on, but it’s limited in its scope, and I wouldn’t say we have a vibrant or growing business environment,” Floyd said. “… If you look at the types of businesses that are opening in existing retail space, they don’t last very long. They occupy the space a year or two and then they move on. We don’t see a lot of long-term investment happening.”
He recommended diversifying the local economy.
“I think we really need to encourage investment in the community outside the oil industry and our traditional staple of fishing,” Floyd said. “I think we need to double down on tourism, we need to make a business environment that is conducive to attracting new types of businesses, both local small business and larger industries. Possibly some manufacturing or transportation.”
Hutchison recommended investigation into Kenai’s commercial state.
“We need more interaction with business people to find out what their needs are, so they can stay there,” she said.
Other candidates said Kenai’s business environment is no cause for concern.
“The issues surrounding small businesses are on their way to being resolved,” Glendening said. “It’s not something that happens in an instant, but it will be resolved, and there will be understanding, and Kenai is open for business.”
McIntosh also said he didn’t “think the city is stopping businesses at all.”
“They (critics of Kenai’s commercial health) compare it to Soldotna — some one can’t do business here so they move to Soldotna,” McIntosh said. “Soldotna’s a totally different situation — they have traffic we don’t have up and down their highway. They’re condensed more into a centralized city. So I don’t think it’s fair to compare our business environment to Soldotna’s. Also, what do the citizens want — do they want businesses that are sprawling over the place? Or would they rather just have a smaller business environment? A lot of our businesses are things like UPS and stuff related to the airport. There’s professionals, attorneys, accountants, things like that. … You just have to take it as what it is with the types of businesses.”
Pettey offered a simple recommendation for keeping Kenai a good place for commerce.
“Each and every one us have a responsibility to buy locally,” Pettey said. “Regardless of how wonderfully a business is run, if our local citizens do not buy locally then businesses will go out of business.”
Glendening said airport property leased to business owners is presently “a checkerboard mosaic of leases that all have slightly differently terms,” and that discussions over clarifying the airport lease procedures are “on the front burner.” He favored reforming the lease language between lessees and the city.
“I think the city should and will and can make sure that city airport property has a fair and transparent means of determining value and establishing a parameter so a business owner who is leasing can say ‘these are the terms of my lease, or I can buy it at a certain price,’” Glendening said. “Those discussions must happen and should happen.”
Floyd described himself as “a vocal opponent of city management of airport lands,” saying there are ways other than leasing for the city to generate airport revenue from land.
“We can also sell those lands for their existing value, or their potential value over time, and then those moneys are invested in the general fund,” Floyd said. “… I think the more you put land in the hands of creative, motivated people who want to build something and invest in the community and stay around for a while — as long as they aren’t doing something unsafe or illegal — then generally people in the business community will do the very best they can.”
Hutchison said the interests of the airport and the businesses that lease its land should be balanced by selling unneeded airport land.
“What’s wrong with looking at what the requirements are selling the rest of it?” Hutchison said. “Keeping what we need and making sure it’s monitored so that we keep the airport in good repair and good status and all that, so we can handle the 747s and whatever. But make sure it’s balanced with selling it and ridding ourselves of property outside of that. We can’t just keep leasing this property just because we like the flow of money.”
“Going into the next fiscal year, I think we’re in good fiscal shape as far as money in hand,” Glendening said about Kenai’s budget. “But going forward, we’re going to have to be real careful how we spend our dollars.”
With funds shared from the state government shrinking or disappearing from future city budgets, the candidates had various ideas of how future budgets could change.
“Everything on the budget will be up for evaluating,” Pettey said, explaining how she’d respond to decreased funding. “… Just like with your home and my home. If income drops, everything on the budget will be up for re-evaluation. I don’t want to put the shortfall on the backs of property owners. I want there to be a fair and equitable allocation of those deficits.”
McIntosh recommended conservative spending.
“We shouldn’t start new projects that we don’t need,” McIntosh said. “But we do have to make sure we keep up with infrastructure. A couple of the specific things I’m looking at is roads, and the wastewater treatment plant.”
Hutchison said “there may be one or two departments that need to be looked at critically because of a drop in revenue, but I don’t know which they may be.” She gave an idea for council members to specialize in budget areas.
“I understand the (state) legislators have different departments they’re responsible for, their committees,” Hutchison said. “Each one is assigned different parts of the state government. I’m curious whether the council members could also be assigned that way. Because I want to be attentive to one particular part of the budget, to really get into understanding the nuts and bolts of it. A lot of times with budgeting and revenue, they just put this out there and nobody can speak to the nuts and bolts of it. Myself, I want to do that as a council member.”
Floyd looked to Kenai’s economy as a budget driver, suggesting a five-year tax incentive to encourage commercial investment in Kenai.
“It doesn’t cost the city anything for businesses to invest their money here,” Floyd said. “And if anything, it increases the curb appeal of the community as a potential location for people’s businesses. … At the end of five years, then that improvement is assessed at its full value and that revenue is generated. In the meantime, we’ll see an increase in sales tax in the delivery of their goods and services to Kenai residents.”
Present vacancies in the Kenai city government include the Planning and Zoning Commission seat left Jack Focose, who died in August 2016. If Glendening and Pettey are elected there will be two more Planning and Zoning vacancies.
Other openings are likely to appear in Kenai’s commissions during the three-year terms of the future council members, who will be charged with approving committee nominees selected by the mayor. The candidates were asked if there were particular community interests they’d like to see represented on commissions.
Glendening said the commissions represent a variety of interests and are responsive to the public.
“I think there’s a good mechanism in place for people to comment if they’re interested, if they’re concerned,” Glendening said.
Floyd said he’d favor commission applicants who were proactive.
“I want to see commissioners who excited about interacting with the public and aren’t going to sit in their committee room waiting for the public to come to them, but who are interested in creative ways to engage the community in whatever that committee is dealing with.”
McIntosh offered an idea to redo the commission appointment procedure to allow participation by a community council — a group he plans to form as “a committee of the citizens that’s not controlled by the council.”
“I think it should be opened up a little more as to who should nominate,” McIntosh said. “…To what level, that’s something we should work out — whether (the prospective community council) just approves the appointee of the (city) council or makes a recommendation themselves. But the final decision should be up the whole (city) council themselves.”
Hutichison said commissions and committees need to be “a full cross-section of the populace, not necessarily the most educated person, not necessarily the most influential financially.”
“Let’s find somebody who’s kind of more man-on-the-street and appoint those people,” Hutchison said. “Maybe there aren’t a lot of applicants, but talking to people, these (commission seats) are beginnings for people to understand how government works.”
Asked about other plans she’d pursue as a council member, Pettey said she hopes to introduce an ordinance to buy a backup electrical generator for Kenai’s city-owned Vintage Point senior housing complex.
“If we had that generator it would give another place for emergency opportunity if our community needed it,” Pettey said.
McIntosh said he plans to push for another revision to Kenai’s comprehensive plan, a land-use document the council approved a revision to in September 2016, and which has been controversial for what critics — including McIntosh — have called an expansion of commercial land-use designation into residential land. Alaska statute requires periodic comprehensive plan revisions, though it doesn’t give a time requirement for revisions.
“The comp plan, I think does need to be looked at, but we’re supposed to look at that every year or so anyway,” McIntosh said. “When the new council gets seated, then we can look at the comp plan and see if we want to make any adjustments.”
McIntosh, Floyd, and Hutchison all advocated for the city government to better use communications technology for outreach.
“I think we could record and broadcast more of the meetings that we don’t,” McIntosh said. “… We should record all the meetings, whether ‘action is taken’ or not, because you get to learn about the thought process of those involved, and you get to see what the community input was, and was that followed. We need to have more of those for more of those commissions.”
Floyd said he would encourage the city to use “low-cost online polling resources in conjunction with social media to do some targeted inquiry into neighborhoods where there’s going to be significant impacts with planning and zoning or a new project coming in.”
“So that instead of seeing the same people who always come to these hearings, we’d get a broader representation of interest from the community,” Floyd said.
Hutchison, who said she currently keeps a Facebook page focused on Kenai politics, also advocated for more online communication.
“Facebook and Twitter, I think, are really good for us here where people are so far apart,” Hutchison said. “We’re kind of a geographically diverse area, and I think we could use that a little bit more. You need to have somebody really dedicated to it, to get out information.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.