The city of Soldotna approached local business owner Gary Hinkle with a proposal. It requested Hinkle improve the exterior of his River Terrace RV Park; it would help by reimbursing $5,000 of the project's total cost.
At first, Hinkle had reservations about the Soldotna Storefront Improvement Program. But after completing the project he's more than happy with the results, he said.
"I am very positive about the program, and I think it's a very reasonable program for the city to take on," he said.
Soldotna's program is entering its second year. The program experienced a successful initial run, with more people submitting proposals than the city had anticipated. Many of the projects accepted during the program's first year still are in the works.
The program's creation coincides with Envision Soldotna 2030, the city's long-range plan adopted in April 2011. The plan's goals include improving the city's downtown area as well as "beautifying" its highway corridors. The city created the storefront program to help achieve those goals.
The Sterling Highway in Soldotna has the highest traffic counts of any road on the Kenai Peninsula, according to the city.
As a reimbursable grant, the program funds up to $5,000 per approved project, which must cost double that amount to receive the full 50 percent reimbursement. It's intended to fund a variety of improvements: signage, masonry work and accessibility upgrades, among others -- all exterior upgrades, however.
The 2012 program was limited to businesses on the city's two major highways, the Sterling and the Spur. It has been expanded this year, with the city accepting applications for commercial and limited commercial districts.
Funding for the project comes from the city's general funds. Initially, the city allocated $15,000 for the program during its first year. But the city quickly received about one dozen applications, said Stephanie Queen, director of planning and community development for the City of Soldotna.
"We saw that there were many worthy projects, so we went back and requested the city essentially double the original budget," Queen said. "The first year, we had close to $30,000."
This year's budget is back down to $15,000. Queen wanted to capture enthusiasm for the program during its first year and take advantage of all the immediately interested businesses, she said.
Six projects were accepted in the program's first phase. Some of those are going forward while others remain in the planning stages. The city's funds represent only a fraction of the total improvements, estimated at $190,000.
Hinkle said his project cost between $12,000 and $14,000. His project consisted of new signage as well as a fresh coat of paint on his business. The city encouraged Hinkle to seek the help of a design group. Although he had reservations about doing so and had his own plans in mind, he eventually softened to the idea.
"(The city's) comment was that they wanted to be able to show, when a project was over, that it had made a significant change to the appearance of the property," he said. "So, we worked together on the changes, and though it doesn't look like what I would've done independently, I think it turned out very well.
"It changed my attitude about the project and using a design team."
It also took some convincing to get Hinkle to participate in the program. He researched a similar program in Boring, Ore.; that program had received praise from officials and residents.
"When I first heard about the program, I thought, 'Is that the way the city ought to be using money?' I'm not one to reach out for aid from government programs," Hinkle said. "(After the research), I made the decision that it would be an all right thing to participate in."
Alice Kerkvliet, owner of Mykel's Restaurant and Soldotna Inn, is about half finished with her project. She replaced the siding on the bottom of the inn. Come summer, she'll replace the siding on the upper portion of the business.
The project will cost a total of $60,000, she said. She wouldn't have placed the siding as her top priority for improvement, but since the city was returning some of her investment she went ahead and participated in the program.
Overall, she supports the program, she said.
"In Soldotna, there are a lot of buildings that have been here for so long, and they're weathered and worn down," Kerkvliet said. "They're not exactly pleasant to look at anymore... The program helped me decide to improve the property sooner than I would've otherwise."
Going forward, the city is searching for additional funding sources for the program to circumvent the use of general funds.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.