Kenai City Hall on Feb. 20, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai City Hall on Feb. 20, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai passes voucher program to boost small business

The $350,000 program is dubbed “Shop Here all Year in Kenai”

The City of Kenai will launch a $350,000 shop local program to help businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program was approved by the Kenai City Council at its Wednesday meeting, which lasted for more than six hours.

Called “Shop Here all Year in Kenai,” the program aims to provide economic relief to Kenai businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19 by providing a $100 voucher to shoppers who spend $200 at participating Kenai businesses. People who spend $100 at participating businesses will also be eligible for a $50 voucher.

The program will be offered in partnership with the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center and will be funded with money from the city’s general fund. $335,000 will be used for direct incentives to shoppers and $15,000 will be used for administrative costs.

The city initially allocated $115,000 for the program, however, the total was increased to $350,000 through amendments during the council meeting.

As with a similar shop local program offered last year in Soldotna, shoppers will be able to submit receipts for qualifying purchases at Kenai businesses in order to receive their vouchers, which must be spent before the end of the program. Participating businesses will issue vouchers from Feb. 1 to April 1 and shoppers will have to spend their vouchers before April 30.

City council member Teea Winger offered a substitute ordinance that would have replaced the original program with one rebranded as “Million Reasons to Shop in Kenai,” with $1 million allocated to it. Council member Henry Knackstedt said $1 million would be the city putting all of its eggs in one basket.

Members of the public voiced their support for the $1 million program, however, it ultimately failed with only Winger and council member Jim Glendening voting in support.

Another amendment offered by Winger would have included groceries in discretionary purchases, however, the council struggled with how to ensure money wouldn’t be spent mostly at larger grocery stores. Ultimately, groceries were not considered qualifying discretionary purchases.

In total, the council spent about four hours discussing and amending the program.

“That was some pretty serious sausage making there,” Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said after the program was approved. “We haven’t done that in a while.”

On the final program as amended, all council members voted in support except Winger, who took to Facebook the next day to condemn the outcome of the meeting.

Winger said that she ultimately voted “no” on the program because she said it picks winners and losers.

“I want you to know I’m going to do everything to get that money back out to small businesses,” Winger said. “I find what we did last night completely unacceptable.”

In a memo provided to the council regarding the program, Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said that in determining whether or not to allocate additional funds to the program, they should also consider the other programs being developed by the city that are aimed at helping Kenai businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19, which he said will provide a “comparable benefit” to the city.

Ostrander said Friday that the total funds allocated for the program were ultimately 250% higher than what the city was initially considering and that the extension of the program’s time frame would allow for greater participation.

“This should be a positive thing,” Ostrander said, adding that Kenai’s small businesses will ultimately benefit from the program despite some negative responses.

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

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