Kenai Performers ask city for land

Editor’s Note: Edited to correct the title of city manager Rick Koch, which was incorrectly given as “city planner.”

The non-profit Kenai Performers theater group has requested a donation of land from the city of Kenai for the construction of a theater to serve as the group’s permanent home. The Performers are seeking donation of two adjacent city-owned parcels on the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Evergreen street, totalling 2 acres and together assessed by the borough at a value of $68,000. The highway location was selected to make the proposed theater visible and accessible. 

Sally Cassanos, president of the Kenai Performers Board of Directors, spoke in support of the donation at the Kenai city council’s Wednesday meeting after first approaching city manager Rick Koch about the matter approximately three weeks ago. At the Wednesday meeting, the council authorized Koch to continue negotiating with the Performers to produce a proposal for a land donation or lease for the council to vote on at a future date. 

In her speech to the council, Cassanos said that the Kenai Performers have been self-sustaining for 45 years, and that they hope to expand. 

“We would eventually like to be a group that is all-encompassing with the arts in our community,” Cassanos said. “We know that strong arts makes a strong community, and a healthy community.” 

When asked by council member Henry Knackstedt what kind of space requirements the Performers had for their project, Cassanos said, “The type of building that we’re — at this point — dreaming of erecting would be an approximately 30-by-40 (foot) initial building, with other components to be added as we continue to progress and grow.”   

Council member Ryan Marquis began the discussion that followed.

“I agree that communities thrive with a strong arts scene. That being said, I’m a little concerned about just donating the city’s land to a non-profit,” Marquis said. “I worry about the precedent that sets, and how do we decide which non-profits we donate land to, and which we don’t. I’m supportive of you (Koch) continuing to have talks with them, but at this time I’d be leaning more towards the lease option or alternatives like that.”

Mayor Pat Porter said she would “definitely want to see this happen.”

“There’s no better place for them to be than in our community,” Porter said. “We have the mechanism in place to donate our land to a non-profit. It’s totally up to council’s discretion who we approve and who we do not approve.” 

Council member Tim Navarre spoke to the group by phone from Juneau.

“I believe the council should deal with these on a case by case basis,” Navarre said, referring to donations to non-profits and the precedent that might be set. “I don’t think one size fits all, or that we should come up with a plan to how we should give land to non-profits or not.” Navarre said he would support the donation. 

The council’s student representative Allie Ostrander supported the donation because the land would “give them room to expand and have more space to work.” The Performers are currently leasing a space in the Peninsula Athletic Club building next to the Subway sandwich shop on Kalifornsky Beach Road and holding many of their performances in rented venues.

“The building they’re in now doesn’t seem suitable to such a large program,” Ostrander said. “I understand the concerns about giving them land, setting the precedent that we would give land to any non-profit, but that could be easily controlled.” 

Kenai Performers Vice President Phil Morin elaborated on the Performers’ plans in an interview after the meeting. 

“We’ve spent the past four years searching for a permanent place,” Morin said. “Once you have a permanent place you can start programming seasons, planning out two or three years. Most of our resources are going toward rent. A good portion of  people are unaware that any given production … is a $12,000 to $15,000 rent just to use the facility. Part of what we need to do is have a permanent home that meets all our requirements. We’re going for what’s called a black box theater. Just a big warehouse that you can configure in any way. For seats, maybe a hundred people. This way we can do more traditional plays, which are cost-prohibitive now just because we’re constantly looking for venues.” 

Koch said in a later interview that he was not aware of the city making a land donation to a non-profit during his ten years as a city employee. However, Koch said that city had given several non-profit groups, including the Challenger Center, the Kenai Arts Guild, and the Oilers Baseball Team, leases of city land for $1.00 a year. Koch said that the city has no special procedure in place for offering land to non-profits outside the normal leasing program.

“If we’re approached by non-profits for something other than market value, then the whole lease process is the same, it’s just a discussion of compensation,” Koch said. “The council makes a decision on what they think that should be, given the circumstances.” 

However, such a lease may create difficulty for a non-profit in attaining grants that give money to match the grantee’s assets. Under a $1.00 lease, the Performers would be unable to use the value of the property as an asset for the grant to match. Koch gave the Rassmusen grant as an example of one that operates this way. 

The final shape of the agreement between the Performers and the city is still to be determined. 

“It hasn’t really taken any form yet,” Koch said of the possible agreement. “The council said ‘city manager, go ahead and continue to explore a donation and/or a lease.’ And that’s what I’ll bring back to council.”

Other decisions made by the council at the Wednesday meeting include issuing an easement for a gas pipeline to be constructed by Alaska Pipeline Company joining the CINGSA gas storage facility with existing transmission pipes, the appropriation of state grant money for use in the city’s water treatment facility, and the postponement of a vote to suspend or dissolve the library commission, which will now take place at the next city council meeting on March 4. 

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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