Three of the four candidates for Kenai City Council convened in the Kenai Community Library on Thursday evening to share their thoughts on waterfront revitalization, what sets them apart from other candidates and how they’ll support local businesses as part of a candidate forum moderated by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM public radio.
The forum, hosted in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Kenai Community Library, is the second of eight being held throughout September heading into the Oct. 3 municipal election.
Over the course of about an hour, candidates fielded questions from forum moderators Ashlyn O’Hara, the Peninsula Clarion’s government and education reporter, and Riley Board, a reporter at KDLL.
Kenai voters this year will cast ballots for two of the four candidates running for Kenai City Council. The two candidates chosen to fill the council’s two open seats will each serve three-year terms.
Incumbent candidates Henry Knackstedt and Teea Winger have both filed, as has former city council member Glenese Pettey and Phil Daniel. Knackstedt, Winger and Daniel participated in Thursday’s forum. Pettey was unable to attend the forum due to a prior work commitment.
In a statement provided to the Clarion and KDLL that was read during the forum, Pettey said she supports waterfront revitalization, that stabilization of the Kenai bluff is one of her top priorities and that she would carefully plan the Kenai’s senior citizens programming, if elected.
“I will advocate for citizen involvement and open public policy for our local government,” her statement says. “I will work to encourage local business growth and responsible development.”
In introducing themselves as candidates, Daniel called himself the “new kid on the block,” Knackstedt said his longevity in municipal government makes him “seasoned,” and Winger emphasized her work ethic and her willingness to dig into issues.
Candidates generally agreed that Kenai should be diligently promoting itself when it comes to marketing the city, but all highlighted different assets they say the city has. Daniel said the city’s greatest asset is its citizens, while Knackstedt pointed to Kenai’s municipal airport, beaches and dipnet fishery.
Like Daniel, Winger also said Kenai’s residents are its biggest asset.
“We have a community that gives back, a community that cares, and they pick up and support each other,” Winger said. “Not just community, but then you’ve got to think we have a lot of benefits — we take care of our streets, we take care of our services, we have top-quality public services, from our police, to our animal control to our senior department.”
Winger and Daniel emphasized communication when it comes to the city working with other jurisdictions to solve common problems, such as the rehabilitation of Wildwood Drive. Knackstedt said that the absence of a right of way along Wildwood is the source of the problem and that the State of Alaska should be paying its fair share because the road primarily services the Alaska Department of Corrections.
“We’re in a position where the cost of it is too high for our taxpayers and I am in agreement that the state needs to really pony up,” Knackstedt said. “It was taken out of the last budget by the governor to pay for a portion of that with the state money. Basically, for a road that’s serving a state facility, and we maintain it … I think that’s kind of a joint effort.”
When it comes to the question of whether the city should rely on temporary fixes or launch into new capital investments, candidates offered different strategies. They were asked specifically about the Kenai Multipurpose Facility, which has been temporarily closed in the past so city crews can repair damage to the facility.
Winger said the city should avoid starting capital projects it doesn’t already have the resources to finish, while Knackstedt said the city would need to consider bonding any project with an upfront cost of several million dollars. Daniel said it should come down to whatever makes the most financial sense for the city.
“You’ve just got to look at the data and see which one is a cost-effective path forward and how you would pay for it, whether it be with grant funding or another means or mechanism, because we don’t want to saddle us with a bunch of debt for something that might be a niche group,” Daniel said.
All candidates were in favor of finding new ways to support local businesses, with Knackstedt touting his longstanding support for the city’s newly adopted storefront improvement program and Daniel suggesting that the city make it easier for businesses to set up shop in Kenai.
Winger said she’d like to see businesses’ first $100,000 be exempt from property taxes, as is done in the City of Soldotna. She said the exemption could work as an extension of the storefront improvement program.
“How do we stay competitive with our neighbors if they’re getting this little extra break over there?” Winger asked, referring to Soldotna. “We’re not getting that here.”
When asked where they’d like to see the City of Kenai be in the next five to 10 years, candidates offered different visions of the future, but all said completion of the bluff erosion project is crucial. Daniel said he envisions more community spaces and said the city council’s role is to help keep important projects on track, while Winger envisioned more youth-oriented spaces and expanded recreational opportunities.
Knackstedt said he envisions a city with a sea wall and the fruition of the city’s plans for a revitalized waterfront area between Millennium Square and the Kenai dock. A stable bluff, he said, will spur new investment in Old Town.
“Once that is done, people will make an investment in our town near the bluff,” Knackstedt said. “Because who’s going to put in $1 million, $2 million or $5 million on something that is going to go over in five or 10 years. It just doesn’t make sense. It will if you do that protection.”
As the city maps out its vision for a revitalized waterfront area, Winger and Knackstedt were clear that the project will need to undergo significant zoning changes. As those zoning changes take place, they said the city will need to be mindful of the area’s existing, or “anchor” property owners and make sure they’re part of the conversation.
Daniel agreed with Winger and Knackstedt, adding that the city could also explore its conditional use permitting process to help accommodate existing property uses in the area.
“The only thing I could potentially add to this is the conditional use process — if that comes into play and things get rezoned. That’s always a lever that can be pulled for existing businesses if it needs to be that way,” Daniel said.
Candidates were also asked about the retention and recruitment of city staff, the city’s annual operating budget, and were given the opportunity to make closing statements.
Election Day is Oct. 3. Absentee in person voting starts on Sept. 18. Thursday’s full candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page or on KDLL’s website at kdll.org. The next forum will be held on Monday, Sept. 11 at the Soldotna Public Library and will feature candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s Kenai, Nikiski and Sterling seats.