The sign outside Soldotna City Hall is seen here on July 16, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

The sign outside Soldotna City Hall is seen here on July 16, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Outdoor dining grants, social service needs among target of remaining Soldotna CARES dollars

The city has about $2 million left to spend

Grants to improve outdoor dining in Soldotna, an expansion of the city’s Virtual Storefront Improvement Program and streamlined support for area nonprofits have all been identified as recipients of some of Soldotna’s remaining CARES Act dollars.

In total, the City of Soldotna received about $10 million in CARES Act funding, including $7.38 million from the state and $2.56 million from the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The city has just under $2 million to spend in 2021. According to a memo from Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen to the council, city administration held a meeting with representatives from the council, city businesses and civic organizations to discuss how those funds should be spent. Using feedback from that meeting, the city identified business support and economic development, nonprofit grants and critical social service needs and city payroll and miscellaneous expenses as the three main focus areas to consider in allocating the remaining funds.

The city will put $900,000 to supporting businesses and economic development, including expanding the city’s Virtual Storefront Improvement Program, establishing a new outdoor dining grant program for Soldotna restaurants and launching another shop local program at the end of this year.

$50,000 will be used to expand the Virtual Storefront Improvement Program, which the city launched last year as a way to help Soldotna businesses improve their online presence in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In her memo, Queen said that the program has already provided funding to over 20 Soldotna businesses and that an additional $50,000 would go directly to grants.

The city will use $250,000 for outdoor dining grants for Soldotna businesses. The program, which Queen said is modeled after similar programs across the country, is geared toward providing well-ventilated, COVID-friendly ways of supporting local restaurants by eating out.

Grants would offer up to $15,000 to restaurants to “establish, expand, or enhance outdoor dining areas,” while attracting residents and visitors to eat out while also mitigating COVID spread. Grants could be used to purchase tables, seating, umbrellas and lighting, among other things. Through the Economic Development and Planning Department, the city would also offer to help businesses plan their outdoor dining areas, including temporarily using parking areas to create new outdoor dining areas.

“This ‘pop-up’ style dining is intended to bring people back to our downtown in a safe and comfortable way, and to give business owners the opportunity to try something new (or grow what they’ve already started), with the hope that they consider making the improvements permanent,” Queen wrote. “Outdoor dining aligns with the City’s long-term goals of supporting a vibrant and entertaining downtown district, and has a direct COVID-19 benefit, as well.”

With what is leftover of the $900,000 once those programs have been administered, city administration recommends offering another shop local program during November and December.

The city will also put $750,000 to critical social service needs, to which they put about $2.4 million in CARES Act funds last year. Rather than setting up new grant programs, the city will work with the Alaska Community Foundation (ACF) to address food security, child care and youth services, mental health support, housing and homelessness prevention and transportation, all of which were identified by members of the community during their meeting with city administration.

Through the partnership, ACF will become a sub-recipient to the city and would run the program, which would aim to support local nonprofit service providers, for an administrative fee.

“I am excited about this potential partnership, and believe it is the best way to support local non-profit organizations that serve our community member[s] in need,” Queen wrote. “And leveraging ACF’s expertise and resources will prove much more efficient than running an additional program in-house.”

Lastly, $350,000 will be used for city payroll and miscellaneous expenses, including covering costs associated with mitigation and recovery efforts at city facilities. That includes payroll expenditures for staff “substantially dedicated” to responding to the pandemic, emergency leave expenses and support for vaccination clinics.

More information on all of the programs can be found in the legislation text.

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

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