Seldovia’s long history has been marked with highs and lows. Alaska Native groups came to the area to meet and trade. In the first half of the 1900s, fishing, mining and logging helped drive the population up to nearly 1,000. However, the opening of the Kenai Peninsula’s Sterling Highway, a decline in the industries on which Seldovia depended and the 1964 Alaska earthquake caused dramatic changes.
The latest U.S. census records a population of less than 300. School attendance has dropped from 150 in 1970 to a current enrollment of 40. Families have moved away.
However, new families have moved into the area, new businesses are opening up and the future for Seldovia looks bright, if you ask those who live and work there.
Tim P. Dillon and his family moved to Seldovia 28 years ago to build a wilderness lodge on Seldovia Bay.
“We built it and operated for 10 years,” he said of Harmony Point Wilderness Lodge.
He and his family also operate as Dillon and Dillon Timber and Log Wrights, providing residential and light commercial construction and specializing in timber frame and round logs. Quality has made his business successful.
“That, and the men and women of Seldovia that work for us,” he said. “Our motto is ‘local men and women building Seldovia into the future.’”
Dillon wears multiple hats. He is a board member of the Seldovia Chamber of Commerce, chaired the local National Scenic Byway organization and chaired the harbor front revitalization board. He recently applied for and received a National Scenic Byways grant to construct a pavilion on the waterfront, a major renovation of Seldovia’s historic boardwalk and signage throughout the town and nearby trail system. In addition, Dillon organizes the human-powered fishing derby held Memorial Day weekend.
For Dillon, the community’s strong and weak points are the same.
“We are like a big family. Coming from a family of nine, I know there are good days and bad days, but am confident that my family will be there for me in the end,” he said.
To anyone considering relocating to Seldovia, Dillon’s advice is, “Do it now. This is the best place in the United States to live. You will never starve in Seldovia.”
Sara Nichols, who moved to Seldovia with her family when she was a high school sophomore in 1990, left for college and returned to stay in 1998, opened Tidepool Café for business in August 2001. She and her business partner, Matt Gallien, operate it generally March through December. She also operates a health food store next to the café.
“Although I was 15 when I moved here, I call this my hometown,” said Nichols. “It is the first place I ever rooted. I truly love the community. It is my family.”
While she admits to having made some mistakes and learning a lot about running a business over the years, she added “my saving grace has always been in surrounding myself with the right people. I have been so fortunate with the friends who have worked with and for me throughout the evolution of this place.”
Seldovia’s strong point: “The year round residents do develop a close-knit family vibe that is necessary in keeping the community that is Seldovia vibrant and real,” she said.
Several new businesses have cropped up this year. Among them is Halo Cab Company, owned by Roberta “Bobby” Gefe, a 13-year Seldovia resident.
Gefe currently has two cars in operation and has plans to add a van to accommodate large groups of passengers that might want to go berry picking or are loaded with camping equipment.
The former Anchorage resident was looking for a place to raise her family of three when “we found this place and loved it,” she said. To support herself and her three children, Gefe has held multiple jobs, including cooking for the city’s senior meals program and handling lines for the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Gefe believes what Seldovia needs are people who want to see the community grow.
“We have people that don’t want the growth, that want it to stay the same, but we need money to come into our places to thrive and keep growing,” she said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere else. I’m just going to do what I do and see what happens.”
Tiffany Haller, whose husband, Shad, is Seldovia’s chief of police, opened Creationz, this year. It is “somewhat of an artist co-op” in which she carries the work of 17 local artists.
“There are so many properties for sale here that there’s lots of opportunity,” said Haller of the possibility to buy an already existing business. “There’s not a lot of job opportunities. … People just need to be creative.”
Suzie Stranik is a part-time Seldovia resident who winters in California and spends summers operating Thyme on the Boardwalk, a gift and plant nursery business located on a small remaining section of Seldovia’s original boardwalk. She and her husband, Jerry, a retired dentist, own rental properties in Seldovia, Stranik is on the community’s beautification committee and has a vision of creating gardens throughout the town.
She sees Seldovia ripe for businesses focused on outdoor recreation, such as a zip lining, wilderness trekking and cross country skiing.
“We just need the right people to come, see the vision and join our community,” said Stranik.
In spite of challenging terrain and weather, Homer Electric Association has been providing Seldovia with power since 1963 when it purchased the city-operated Seldovia power plant and electric system. Over the years, the member-owned co-op has expanded service to other communities on the south side of Kachemak Bay with the help of a submarine cable. With the potential for breakdowns increasing each year, HEA would like to replace two generators at the Gerry Willard Generation Plant, according to Joe Gallagher, HEA’s public relations coordinator.
“HEA received a $250,000 legislative appropriation this year and hopefully will receive additional funding next year from the Legislature,” said Gallagher of a project anticipated to cost approximately $3 million.
Increased communication technology is helping close the gap between Seldovia’s remote setting and the rest of the world with home and business Internet up to 10 Mbs, megabits per second, and 3G wireless coverage offered by Alaska Communications.
“In 2002, we met with businesses and community leaders in Seldovia. We heard that people needed faster Internet and were pleased to be able to bring those services to Seldovia,” said Heather Cavanaugh, the company’s director of corporate communications.
Plans for numerous projects are keeping the city of Seldovia focused on the future. They include a $350,000 water filtration project; an $88,000 water line project for Main Street; $2 million improvements to the harbor; construction of a $565,000 value-added processing plant that utilizes cannery property; a wilderness park funded with $98,000 from the Department of Natural Resources and an in-kind match from the city; the scenic byways pavilion for which Dillon wrote the grant; and development of a $50,000 comprehensive plan for the city.
“The city of Seldovia is very fortunate to have so many progressive opportunities,” said Tim Dillon, the city manager and unrelated to Tim P. Dillon, in presenting the project overview to the city council.
One of Seldovia’s newest residents, Ian McGaughey came to Seldovia from Vermont on May 6, 2012, to work as the Seldovia Village Tribe’s director of public affairs and marketing. He also serves as president of the Seldovia Chamber of Commerce and is on the board of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.
“I don’t have the perspective others have,” said McGaughey of his short-term residency. “I think there was the hope that someone with a fresh pair of eyes, from outside, might have ideas to maybe help see things in a different perspective.”
He is encouraged by the number of new businesses that have opened in Seldovia this spring.
“Those are positive things, signs that things are turning around and we’re going to have a good summer,” said McGaughey. “They all probably have different ways of approaching how to reach the goal, but they all have the same goal in mind: success for local businesses, good education and quality of life for everybody.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.