Kenai Peninsula residents turned out on a rainy Wednesday to celebrate Soldotna’s Progress Days with an expanded farmer’s market, a “shop local” campaign and a scavenger hunt around town.
Progress Days usually takes the form of a parade through town. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Soldotna’s Chamber of Commerce joined forces with the weekly Wednesday Market to celebrate the town while avoiding large crowds of people.
Dozens of vendors set up shop in Soldotna Creek Park every Wednesday. Even more than usual could be seen for Progress Days this week. Local dance studio Forever Dance Alaska put on a show that afternoon, which was the first live onstage performance at the park since the beginning of the pandemic.
For the past few years, the Wednesday Markets have been paired with free live concerts in the evening, but the chamber has been unable to hold the concerts this year due to concerns about large crowds leading to a sudden surge in COVID-19. The chamber’s executive director, Shanon Davis, said she got a little emotional seeing the dancers onstage, simply because it had been so long since any sort of live entertainment had taken place at the park.
Nekoda Cooper, a sophomore at Kenai Central High School, was selling produce with her brother Elijah as part of her Caring for the Kenai project: Imperfect Produce. Caring for the Kenai is an annual event that challenges local students to come up with original ideas tied to conservation and environmental activism. Cooper was chosen as one of the finalists this year. The competition was set to take place this spring and was postponed like everything else due to the pandemic. That didn’t stop Cooper from continuing to make her project a reality.
“My family owns Ridgeway Farms, and I see how much can go to waste on a farm because customers simply won’t buy something that has little marks on it sometimes,” Cooper said. “So I decided I want to be able to pay those farmers for all their hard work and make produce like this more available to families who usually can’t afford it.”
Cooper’s project involves buying the misshapen, blemished or otherwise “imperfect” produce that local farmers grow but cannot sell at grocery stores, and selling it at the Wednesday Market at a reduced price. Cooper said she has already had successful days selling her produce at the market. While she is currently only acquiring the produce from her family’s farm, she plans eventually to buy from more farmers in the area. She hopes that winning the Caring for the Kenai competition will help her make those connections.
Progress Days and the Wednesday Market brought more than just local residents to Soldotna Creek Park. Ginger Dethloff lives in San Diego but was in Soldotna on Wednesday perusing the squash blossoms and kale being sold by Eddie Land of Grace Acre Farms. Dethloff and her husband visit the Kenai Peninsula every summer. She said she enjoys being able to come to Progress Days and support the local farmers, despite not being a local herself.
In addition to the expanded market, Soldotna’s Progress Days included two new events that came about while planning for alternatives to the parade.
The first was a “Shop Local” campaign that took place over the last two weeks. Seventeen businesses in Soldotna signed up to participate in the event this year. Shoppers could acquire a stamp card from any of the participating locations and fill it with stamps by spending $10 at any of the businesses. A $10 purchase equaled one stamp. Ten stamps were needed to fill the card. All the filled cards were gathered Wednesday and incorporated into a raffle that evening. Homer resident Megan Fowler won the raffle and a $500 gift card.
After calculating the value of all the stamp cards that had been submitted, Davis told the Clarion that $60,260 was spent at those 17 businesses as part of the campaign.
The evening culminated in the Amazing Chamber Chase, which sent four teams searching around Soldotna for a scavenger hunt. The teams were emailed 20 clues at 5:30 p.m. that would take them to “selfie stations” scattered within 1.5 miles of Soldotna Creek Park — many at iconic local businesses like Sweeney’s Clothing or Kenai River Brewing Company. Rhonda McCormick and Team Rosie — named after McCormick’s mom — were the first to finish the scavenger hunt and win the Chase.
“They blew the other teams out of the water,” Davis said. “Rhonda’s team was done over an hour before anyone else.”
Davis said that both events were such a success that she plans on incorporating them into future Progress Days. She hopes to have a more robust advertising effort for both next year, so that more businesses and residents can participate.