Dustin Aaronson, who owns Copy Cats Printing and Design in Kenai, speaks in support of a storefront improvement program during a Kenai City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Dustin Aaronson, who owns Copy Cats Printing and Design in Kenai, speaks in support of a storefront improvement program during a Kenai City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai creates storefront improvement grant program

The program has not yet gone live

Eligible businesses in Kenai will soon be able to apply for money to give their storefront a makeover following a Wednesday city council vote in favor of creating a new grant program.

The program, called the Storefront and Streetscape Improvement Grant, aims to reduce the financial burden to eligible Kenai businesses of making their building facades or street landscapes more attractive. The effort is being spearheaded by Kenai City Council members Victoria Askin and Deborah Sounart with assistance from Kenai Planning Director Linda Mitchell.

The city council on Wednesday committed $50,000 for the program, which will provide a 50% matching grant for eligible projects, up to $10,000. A program guide presented to city council members Wednesday says the program objectives, such as implementing business-friendly relations, align with the city’s “Imagine Kenai 2030 Comprehensive Plan.”

The same guide outlines what businesses and projects would be eligible and ineligible for the program.

Among other requirements, eligible grant applications must come from businesses locally owned and operated in Kenai looking to support an existing structure on which construction has not already started. The storefront must be visible from a public street and have clear, unobstructed street-facing windows once their project is complete.

The program guide also encourages businesses to follow as many of the program’s “design principles” as possible. Those principles say, among other things, that improvements should contribute to a lively pedestrian experience, be focused on people rather than cars, address all four seasons, support accessibility and contribute to safe streets.

Sounart told city council members during Wednesday’s meeting that the program is one Kenai “desperately needs,” especially as city crews continue mitigating hazardous trees in town, and said it is not a government handout for businesses.

“You look around even just across the street here at the post office — it’s bare,” Sounart said. “You know, all of our beautiful spruce trees that have died now and have been cut down are going away and what it’s exposing is older Kenai buildings that are 30, 40, 50 years old.”

Askin said creating a storefront improvement and streetscape program shows that the City of Kenai supports local businesses.

“I totally agree that it’s time for this,” she said. “I think providing these funds demonstrates the city’s support of our local businesses and desire to see them succeed.”

Dustin Aaronson, who owns Copy Cats Printing and Design in Kenai, told council members Wednesday that he is excited about the program, but that there are ways the city could make it easier for businesses to participate. He said the proposed requirement that businesses solicit two bids for projects before funding is awarded, for example, may not be possible.

“You might want to think about cutting that back to one bid, since we’re pretty lucky to get anything done in this town with who’s available,” Aaronson said, adding that the current waitlist for him to get windows replaced is about two months.

Mitchell said the program can be tweaked as necessary. Approved by council Wednesday was only the creation of the program and the use of $50,000 to fund it.

Kenai’s program will be similar to a storefront improvement program offered by the City of Soldotna. That program funds exterior business remodels in the city’s commercial districts through a 50% matching grant, up to $7,500.

More information about the program, which has not yet gone live, can be found on the city’s website at kenai.city. Wednesday’s city council meeting can be streamed on the city’ YouTube channel.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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