The Sterling Highway Bridge can be seen on June 14, 2020, in Soldotna, Alaska. The city council recently approved a plan to revitalize the downtown Soldotna area from Soldotna Creek Park to the bridge. (Peninsula Clarion file)

The Sterling Highway Bridge can be seen on June 14, 2020, in Soldotna, Alaska. The city council recently approved a plan to revitalize the downtown Soldotna area from Soldotna Creek Park to the bridge. (Peninsula Clarion file)

Soldotna looks to create ‘main street’ by river

The city on Thursday applied for $360,000 from a federal grant program that would help fund a planning project.

Soldotna has its sights set on the creation of a new city “main street” that would run parallel to the Kenai River and boost capital investment in the area. The city on Thursday applied for $360,000 from a federal grant program after the Soldotna City Council unanimously approved the submission of that application during their Wednesday night meeting.

The planning project, expected to take around 18 months to complete, would assist with the planning and design of a new “main street” adjacent to the Kenai River. The project would address about 85 acres of land running along the Kenai River from Soldotna Creek Park to the Sterling Highway Bridge.

“The City of Soldotna is seeking to redevelop a portion of its downtown, resulting in a new ‘main street’ adjacent to the Kenai River, with infrastructure and amenities that will foster new private capital investment, partnerships, job creation, and that will improve the quality of the built environment for residents and visitors,” the city’s grant application says, according to Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen.

Redevelopment of the area around the Kenai River in Soldotna — discussed previously by the city as the Soldotna Riverfront Redevelopment Project — was first identified Soldotna’s 2015 Downtown Improvement Plan and later in the city’s 2018 “Soldotna Riverfront: Options and Opportunities” publication.

Most of Soldotna’s riverfront properties are privately owned and any development would require private and public partnerships.

“We understand that economic development at the local (level) requires strong partnerships and collaboration between government and the private sector, and I hope we are successful in seeking this investment from the EDA to really evaluate the possibilities in our downtown,” Queen said Thursday.

A Soldotna map of parcel ownership by type around the Kenai River shows that most of the land is privately owned, while accompanying city comments point out that there is no road or trail that offers developed public access to or views of the Kenai River between the Sterling Highway Bridge and state-owned land. Three dead-end roads stop short of the river.

“Based on the number of no trespassing signs, in many places the river today is more of an attractive nuisance than an asset,” city documents say.

Queen and Soldotna Director of Economic Development and Planning John Czarnezki wrote in an Oct. 20 memo to the Soldotna City Council that previous conversations between Soldotna employees and private riverfront landowners aimed at gauging public interest in developing the area indicated support for the collection of more information prior to determining the feasibility of such an endeavor.

The grant program through which Soldotna’s project would be funded is made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year and is offered under the U.S. Economic Development Agency. Soldotna is applying for $360,000 in funds and has already approved $90,000 of its own money, bringing the total project cost to $450,000.

Queen said during the Soldotna City Council’s Wednesday night meeting that the city has worked with the Kenai Economic Development District to find funding sources for the project and that the grant application is ready to be submitted.

“We’ve spent seven months and literally hundreds of hours refining what would be an application and working with both Tim (Dillon) and his crew, as well as Shirley Kelly who’s our regional coordinator with the EDA, and had just recently gotten to a point where she said it’s ready to submit if the council wants us to move forward,” Queen said.

When asked about the overall grant timeline, Queen said that the committee reviewing applications meets weekly, but that it sees a lot of applications. By spending so much time on the city’s application, Queen said, they hope Soldotna’s application will stand out and result in a quick response from the committee.

“The reason that we’ve spent the last seven months refining this idea and our project pitch is that we hope it positions us to be in a position to be reviewed favorably once it enters that process,” Queen said. “I do not believe that it will be several months. We were proposing in our application a start date of January, so I do think that, depending on whether we submit this … I would hope that we would have some indication back within a matter of weeks, if not a month.”

The council unanimously approved the city’s application for the funds.

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

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