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Kenai Peninsula one of Alaska's only growing boroughs

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Redoubt Reporter file photo
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For the 10th year in a row, Alaska saw more people leave than arrive, a trend that holds true for almost every borough in the state. But some community are expanding, and as KDLL’s Riley Board reports, the Kenai Peninsula is seeing steady — but uneven — growth.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough grew by almost 1,000 people from July 2021 to July 2022, according to data released last week by the state’s Department of Labor. That makes it the second-largest growing borough in the state — and one of only four that grew during the past year.

“Kenai is a big-time grower from migration,” State demographer David Howell said.

He said most places in the state, including Anchorage, have seen more people leave than come in. But he said that’s not true for the Kenai Peninsula. He chalks it up to Anchorage residents leaving for the peninsula in search of a lower cost of living.

“People don’t necessarily move from the Lower 48 to Kenai directly — what they’ll do is they’ll move to Anchorage, and then move down to Kenai,” Howell said.

The Mat-Su is the only borough growing more than Kenai, and Howell said it’s for the same reasons.

That migration to the Kenai Peninsula is driven by retirement-age Alaskans. Howell said that’s partly because Kenai has less of a military presence, an industry that can drive down the average age of a community.

And it’s meant that population growth isn’t reflected in the school district’s enrollment.

While the borough population has grown steadily over the last several decades, according to Howell, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has seen a downward trend in enrollment for almost 25 years. Enrollment in the district hit an all-time high in 1998, and has dropped almost 20% since then.

The Kenai Peninsula school district’s Finance Director Liz Hayes attributed the mismatched population shifts to the borough’s growth within its retirement-age population.

“We were seeing a lower incoming kindergarten class than our outgoing senior class,” Hayes said. “And they were attributing that to that we were becoming more of a retirement-type community on the peninsula.”

Hayes and district Superintendent Clayton Holland said the declining enrollment is also related to housing — specifically, a lack of available housing for young families with kids who might otherwise fill the schools.

Howell, the demographer, said that housing crunch could also be linked to the increasingly aging population.

“It is true that if you have this retirement population coming in and buying up houses, it could drive out the working-age population who maybe can’t afford to get into a bidding war with these older retirees,” he said.

Howell predicts Kenai will continue to grow, as will its retirement-age population. Overall, he said, births will continue to go down: Kenai is already below the state’s average fertility rate, and soon millennials will age out of what Howell calls their prime birthing years. Generation Z — the group born between the late 90s and 2010s — meanwhile, is a smaller generation overall and is therefore likely to continue the downward trend in births.

But Howell said, migration will offset that trend as long as retirees in Anchorage keep moving down to the peninsula

“So I think we’ll see those trends continue for quite some time,” he said.

You can read the state’s full report on the Alaska Department of Labor’s website.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.