Big-Ticket Projects Highlight 'State of the City'

Ariel Van Cleave

     Homer officials said the city is in relatively good shape, financially speaking, and there are big plans on the horizon. Mayor Beth Wythe and City Manager Walt Wrede delivered their State of the City Address during a Homer Chamber of Commerce Luncheon Tuesday.

     Capital projects have been a focus for the city in the last year. That includes extensive work at the Homer Harbor by replacing floats, upgrading portions of the electrical system and installing a new ramp. That last one is slated to finish up this year. 

     And Wythe said the city is using some of the $6 million in cruise ship head tax funds to pay for an extension and general improvements along the Spit Trail. Another harbor-related project is to extend the deep water dock. The city already performed a little maintenance there last year. Wythe said the long-term incentive for that project is too good to pass up.

     “Because if we can extend the dock and reinforce it, it gives us the ability to then receive freight across that dock, which could be for the Kenai Peninsula… a deal changer. Everything wouldn’t have to come through Anchorage port and make it a little more reasonable to get freight in and out of Homer,” she said.

     The project is still in the design phase, but she says the city must take the lead in this type of thing. Wythe said showing state and federal officials that Homer has, as they say, “skin in the game,” often opens the doors to funding.

     “It’s a lot easier for them to join with us and help that happen than when we wait for them to give us money to do anything. So I’ve been working really hard the last 18 months to change that philosophy even at the council table from waiting until somebody else comes along to provide for us to starting a project and saying we’re moving forward with this project, it would be really helpful for us if you could partner with us. But we’re going to take the baby steps,” she said.

     The city also has been taking a few baby steps toward the goal of a new public safety building. 

     “We can afford to contract somebody and help us get to a 35 percent design. We can afford to figure out which piece of property; and there are a handful of properties the city already owns… we can do all that leg work ourselves,” she said.

     Wythe said that facility is about five years out, but that’s only if everything goes according to plan. She also mentioned the new natural gas line and distribution system as a big win for Homer. Phase two of construction has already started up and Wrede said so far the project is ahead of schedule and under budget.

     Both Wythe and Wrede said having access to natural gas will help make businesses more competitive in the long run, too. Wrede said officials want to rebrand Homer and make it much more inviting to entrepreneurs.

     “We still, obviously, care very much about the environment. But we know that we need a vibrant economy here too if people want to live here. We’re going to support the lifestyle that we value,” he said.

     Again, he mentioned a focus on the port and harbor. That’s been a money-making machine for the city lately. Wrede said one way he’d like to open up more possibilities is to carve the harbor out of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. 

     “It’s really caused quite a burden over the years because the permitting environment is pretty intense to do anything in the critical habitat area. We were having to have projects delayed and pay extra permitting costs just to do things as simple as replace a float in the harbor,” he said.

     The measure is at the state level and has already passed out of the both chambers of the Alaska Legislature. Wrede said it’s sitting on the governor’s desk waiting for a signature. He said the harbor was never meant to be included in the critical habitat area and hopes once the matter is cleared up more business will make its way into the port and harbor. 

     On the flip side, Wrede said there are concerns the city is facing, like budget cuts at the federal and state level that will directly affect Homer. He also mentioned the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assessors Office is saying property taxes will likely be lower for this year. Wrede said that will make it even harder for the city to provide services, and there needs to be more flexibility about what residents will pay for in terms of keeping those services. 

     He also mentioned a potentially devastating loss for the city is if the state follows through on its $175,000 cut to the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. Those state funds help capture federal dollars through NOAA. Wrede said that one cut could lead to a “house of cards.”

     “In a worst case scenario, you could see the (Alaska) Island and Oceans Center maybe not be there. And when you think of all the full-time jobs there, and you think of all the economic activity that that building brings to this town, that would be a huge loss,” he said. 

     The Homer City Council passed a resolution supporting the KBRR and asking the legislature to keep funding in place so it remains open. Senator Peter Micciche was in Homer recently and told the audience he had plans to go back to Juneau and fight to restore funding.