In an effort to beautify the City of Kenai, the city planner is borrowing a concept from its neighboring city of Soldotna with the potential implementation of the storefront improvement project.
The project, now in its third year in Soldotna, is a reimbursable grant fund, in which the city partners with local business owners to share the cost of up to $7,500 worth of improvements made to a business’s exterior with the intention of revitalizing the downtown commercial core, said Soldotna City Planner John Czarnezki.
Stephanie Queen, the director of economic development and planning for Soldotna, created the program, which came out of the city’s comprehensive plan adopted in 2011. Czarnezki, who took over as Soldotna city planner five months ago, said the program meets several long-term goals of “Envision Soldotna 2030,” related to beautification of the key areas along the Kenai River and Sterling and Kenai Spur Highway.
“The program is designed with the intention of increasing property values and improving the vitality of the commercial core,” he said.
In the first year Soldotna funded three projects totaling $15,000. The amount available for each property is 50 percent of the cost of eligible improvements, he said.
For the first improvement project, completed in the fall of 2012, the city paid a $5,000 grant to River Terrace RV on the Sterling Highway to repaint the building and install a new sign.
The initial response far exceeded the city expectations with many worthy projects vying for limited funding, he said.
The Soldotna City Council decided to double the size of the program after the first year with six new projects with a city contribution of $22,000. The council also agreed to increase the additional funds for each project from $5,000 to $7,500. Those six projects represented more than $190,000 worth of improvements, he said.
“The cost to renovate is expensive it is difficult for a small business owner to make improvements because of finances,” he said. “If we could help them along, it is a win-win situation.”
The city awarded two $5,000 grants to projects on the Spur. The Fitness Place owner Scott Jackson renovated the exterior of his building with new siding and a timber-frame entryway.
Mykel’s Restaurant and Soldotna Inn owner Alice Kerkvliet, also received a $5,000 grant to replace their façade with a concrete pre-finish cedar siding to the entire building. Justin Hanson, the general contractor for the project, completed the job last October. He said he probably received 50 complements a day for the improved look of Mykel’s Restaurant. He said the grant is good for redevelopment and the economy as the population continues to grow.
“I think people moving here want something new. There isn’t a nostalgic feel in Soldotna anymore,” he said. “It’s good for everybody. I think this project is sustaining and gives people incentive to clean stuff up.”
Hanson is currently renovating the Shops Around the Corner building at the Sterling Highway and Binkley Street intersection. Chez Moi Boutique is moving to into the space and expected to open later this week. While he said he did not work on the exterior of that building, it is another grant project from the city.
Czarnezki said additional projects have been approved and work should begin during the construction season this summer. Along with Shops Around the Corner, grant approvals were awarded to renovations of the exterior of the Peninsula Center Mall and Ellis Automotive on the Sterling Highway.
Grant projects continue to come in year-round because it is a rolling program, he said. Once the renovation is done, the city will review the work before approving reimbursement, he said.
Czarnezki said the feedback from business owners about the project has been positive.
“This is something that have never been available to them and it’s an easy process,” he said. “The application process is simple and pretty painless.”
Soldotna’s Storefront Improvement Program won the “Best Practices” award at the inaugural state planning awards banquet, in Anchorage last November.
Czarnezki said other communities have similar programs with goals of developing a healthy local economy. The Soldotna planning department has had discussions with the City of Kenai about adopting a similar project and are happy to share their plans.
Kenai City Planner Francis Krizmanich presented the SIP details at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting March 26. He introduced the idea to the commission at the Feb. 19 meeting after discussions with Soldotna city administrators on how Kenai could revitalize its downtown commercial core.
Krizmanich said by reimbursing local businesses for making exterior improvements, the project is a way to revitalize the Kenai’s downtown commercial district as well as beautify the city.
“Soldotna has provided a good template,” he said. “I am happy with it, and, besides a few changes, I would like to see us adopt the program here.”
Krizmanich asked the commission for suggestions to help identify which key areas would businesses be eligible. He classified shops along the Spur, Willow Street and Old Town as specific areas.
Zoning commissioner Henry Knackstedt said he would limit the target area on the Spur from Swires Road to the north end of town. Commissioner Ken Peterson objected because he said that would cut other businesses around Beaver Loop out.
“They are still a part of Kenai and tourists drive on the Spur as they enter our city,” he said.
Zoning chair commissioner Jeff Twait added the Main Street Loop as an eligible area.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, who served as the commission liaison, said because the program does not currently exist, there is no money in the budget for this year. Because the City of Kenai is currently preparing next year’s fiscal budget, money could be available for the program, but the committee will need to finalize a plan before bringing it to the council.
Krizmanich said the committee agreed to amend the program at their next meeting April 9 and will plan on advertising to businesses to gauge interest before deciding on a budget.