City of Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel presents “State of the City” at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

City of Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel presents “State of the City” at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Mayor, city manager share vision at Kenai’s ‘State of the City’

At the Sixth Annual State of the City, delivered by City of Kenai leadership to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce last week, Mayor Brian Gabriel and City Manager Terry Eubank shared visions for Kenai’s future and updates on myriad ongoing and in-development projects and services.

Maintaining infrastructure

Eubank spoke of capital projects, saying that the city is focused on maintaining its infrastructure. In the last year, playground equipment at the park strip was replaced, the Kenai Bark Park was opened, phase one repaving was done on Willow Street and construction was completed on buildings for sand and equipment storage at the Kenai Municipal Airport.

Ongoing and immediately upcoming projects include expansion of the Kenai Cemetery and renovations of the Kenai Recreation Center, which recently saw replacement of its roof and HVAC system. Vintage Pointe, the senior housing complex, will soon get new boilers and a backup generator. The airport’s runway will be refurbished.

“The most popular project in Kenai, our number one priority for 30 years,” Eubank said, is the bluff stabilization project. Bids have been accepted, contracts have been entered into, and work on the project will begin this summer. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for June, but there won’t be much work done locally until next summer, as this year will be spent manufacturing.

Eubank said bids for the project came in around $20 million, when they had expected roughly $42 million. That is a very pleasant surprise.

“I’ve got to tell you, that’s not happening very often,” he said. “That’s really exciting for us.”

The complete cost of the project is covered by state grants from the governor and Alaska Legislature, Eubank said.

“That wall’s not gonna cost the city taxpayers, right out of our pockets, a dime,” he said.

Construction is scheduled to be completed by February 2026.

Visualizing the future

Another large project on the city’s horizon is revitalization of the city’s waterfront. Eubank said that space is defined as the area from Millenium Square near the Kenai Senior Center to the Kenai City Dock.

A 2022 visioning project created an idea for the space that features a mixture of retail space and “high density residential” area. A central element, Eubank said, was a desire to maintain the space as an authentic, working waterfront without compromising the businesses that already operate in the area. The city is now seeking grants for planning for the area.

Eubank also spotlighted an effort to create more housing in Kenai. A subdivision installation agreement has been signed for 31 parcels near Redoubt Avenue, and Eubank said some of those homes are already on the market, with dozens more to come.

The Storefront and Streetscape Improvement Program, created last year, has already approved four projects worth $40,000, and Eubank said they will soon be accepting applications for this year’s projects.

Eubank pointed to the business property tax exemption passed in December, which allows Kenai businesses and residents to request exemption from city taxes for the first $100,000 of their assessed personal property. In December, Eubank said that the benefit will be felt by businesses because of the way the state already exempts personal property and that the exemption would remove burden from many Kenai businesses.

“If you’re a business in this room, and you have business personal property, your 2024 taxes will be going down,” he said during last week’s presentation.

Finally, Eubank described partnerships that are growing the opportunities in Kenai. He looked to the growth of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula campus on South Spruce and the construction of the Triumvirate Theatre Performing Arts Center.

These facilities represent services and offerings, Eubank said, and are important to the community because they bring people to town. That’s good for business.

Similarly, Eubank said they’re collaborating and working with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Salamatof Tribe.

“We’re all serving the same people,” he said. “We all have the same goal, and when we work together, we think we can do better.”

‘Proactive’ developments

Gabriel’s presentation focused on “highlights” from calendar and fiscal year 2023 compiled from each department. He said a connective thread through many of the updates was a “proactive” spirit, as departments work to solve problems or take steps to meet residents where they are.

“We’ve got some really great employees, some great department heads that do the day-to-day work of the city and deliver the services to our residents,” Gabriel said.

The library, he said, saw “close to 100,000” checkouts last year, with 60,000 visitors and 700 new accounts created. The children’s summer reading program had 632 signed up and over 4,000 reading hours logged. Across all programs, 9,000 people participated.

“There’s a lot of traffic going through that library,” Gabriel said. “Which is wonderful.”

Also a standout, he said, is the library’s digital literacy program which works to help teach basic operations for a variety of technical devices to help the senior community most specifically.

Speaking of seniors, Gabriel said the Kenai Senior Center delivered 33,000 meals last year.

The Bill Osborn Memorial Greenhouse produced $3,300 in vegetables and flowers that all saw use in the center — replacing the same number of veggies and flowers that otherwise would have been purchased and thus representing that amount in savings to the department, Gabriel said.

Parks and Recreation removed 150 beetle-killed trees last year and operated slash disposal sites to facilitate further mitigation of the dead trees.

Gabriel also pointed to their events programming, most recently the Easter Egg Hunt, which drew 300 people, but also the Kenai Recreation Center, which logged nearly 45,000 visitors last year.

Public Safety saw an increase in call volume of about 3% last year, with 1,597 calls for service.

The Fire Department has also entered the Supplemental Emergency Medical Transport Reimbursement Program, which provides funds to recover costs for ambulance service to patients on Medicaid. To date, Gabriel said that the program has resulted in payments of over $1 million to the department.

This spring, the department is also working to mitigate 85 acres of spruce bark beetle-infested area through the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. This summer, the department will bring on two new ambulances.

For the police department, Gabriel said he’s “happy to report” that calls for service are down. He said that this year, calls are down 6%, which follows a 3% reduction from the year before.

The police department obtained a grant to replace video systems in all its vehicles and will soon finish another grant-funded, multiyear project to upgrade radio systems.

The Kenai Municipal Airport, Gabriel said, is the “first impression” for many Kenai visitors, and so is the subject of 12 improvement projects scheduled through fiscal year 2027 worth $56.5 million.

Gabriel closed his presentation by pointing to the city’s stable mill rate, which hasn’t been raised since 2015. Sales tax revenue, which represents two thirds of general fund revenue, has also grown, he said, for the last 26 consecutive fiscal year quarters, representing more than six years.

“Our job as council, or government, as policymakers, should be bringing people to the City of Kenai to work or play, to visit and patronize businesses,” he said. “We’ll continue to try to do that — create policies that bring folks to Kenai to spend money.”

More information can be found at kenai.city.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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