Tables and chairs are set up outside of Everything Bagels on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn OՈara/Peninsula Clarion)

Outdoor dining expands in Soldotna

Opportunities to dine outdoors in Soldotna just became a lot more plentiful.

That’s thanks to a program offered by the City of Soldotna that offered grants of up to $15,000 to city restaurants to expand, establish or enhance their outdoor dining spaces. The city spent about $155,000 on grants to businesses through the program, which also saw about $80,000 in private investment by those businesses.

The Soldotna City Council approved up to $250,000 for the program earlier this year, to be paid for with leftover CARES Act funds. The City of Soldotna received around $10 million in CARES Act money total, most of which was put toward grant opportunities for businesses and nonprofits and direct relief to city residents. In all, the city awarded grants to 11 businesses before the program’s end earlier this month.

The program was meant to incentivize the creation of more outdoor dining spaces that would allow patrons to support local restaurants in a way that was safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds could be used for the purchase of tables and chairs, umbrellas and lighting, for example.

In addition to offering more well-ventilated spaces for people during the pandemic, Soldotna Associate Planner Jennifer Hester said the program also responded to some of the city’s bigger aspirations.

“The program not only had a direct COVID-19 benefit, but also aligned with the City’s long-term goal of supporting a vibrant and entertaining downtown district,” Hester wrote in a Sept. 16 memo to the city council.

At Everything Bagels in Soldotna, cafe-style tables and chairs now line the outside of the building. Owner Pamela Parker said the expansion has allowed her to almost double the capacity of her business and that she often sees people sitting outside on sunny days.

“I think it was a great push by the city,” Parker said, adding that the grant enabled her business to serve customers in a safer space.

Parker was a member of the Soldotna City Council when the program was introduced and said she abstained from voting because she knew, as a business owner, that she would be applying for the program.

Parker said she, like other program participants, experienced supply chain issues that delayed the completion of Everything Bagels outdoor dining spaces, particularly as it related to materials. As winter approaches, she said she hopes to add outdoor heaters to the area so that it will still be comfortable when it is cold outside.

Soldotna Director of Economic Development and Planning John Czarnezki said Thursday the City of Soldotna extended the program’s deadline specifically in response to those supply chain shortages. Work at Everything Bagels, for example, began in May and concluded at the end of August, Parker said.

Czarnezki said Soldotna’s program was modeled after similar offerings in the Lower 48, and that the city plans to build on the accomplishments of the program into 2022 by creating an interactive map that will allow summer patrons to find places that offer outdoor dining accommodations.

Other program recipients included Addie Camp, Don Jose’s, Kenai River Brewing Company, Lucy’s Market, Pad Thai Café, Odie’s Deli, Pizza Boys, St. Elias Brewing Company, The Catch Restaurant and Bar, and Yo! Tacos.

More information about the use of Soldotna’s CARES Act funds can be found on the city’s website at soldotna.org.

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

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