Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 9:02 PM on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Soldotna voters to determine whether city buys land to move visitor center



By Logan Tuttle
Morris News Service - Alaska

The future of the Soldotna Visitor Center will be left up to city voters.

The Soldotna City Council passed a resolution during its Wednesday night meeting calling for a special election on May 1. The election will determine whether the city will be allowed to purchase the former Hutchings Auto Group building for the relocation of the Soldotna Visitor Center. The Hutchings Auto Group building sits at the "Y" intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur Highways and comes with a price tag of $2.1 million.

Part of the Soldotna city code states that any property purchase over $2 million requires ratification by voters, City Manager Larry Semmens said during the meeting.

"All we're doing is putting it to the voters," Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche said. "And if it does pass, we would be purchasing the property but future improvements to the property are not part of the resolution."

The current Soldotna Visitor Information Center location is about 1,000 square feet, with about half of that room dedicated to the wildlife display, Tami Murray, visitor center coordinator told the council.

"Our facility is way too small for what we're doing there," she said. "We get 45,000 to 50,000 people through there all year, most of that is May to September."

The current location in reference to the highway also proves troubling, especially trying to turn left into the parking lot during the busy months, Murray said.

"We had tour buses that used to come to our facility, but getting in and out of our place — now it's just tough and dangerous," she said.

The proposed building would give the visitor center more elbow room at 2,250 square feet. With more space, there would be a possibility of doubling as a convention center in the future.

"At this point in time the only place for a large function is the ice rink, and that requires either covering up the ice or taking out the ice," Pat Cowan, a member of the Soldotna chamber, said during public testimony. "This is a fantastic opportunity and one that seldom comes to a city our size."

Micciche said having the visitor center at the proposed location would reflect the Envision Soldotna 2030 comprehensive plan. "If you look at the plans for the downtown area, this meets a lot of those objectives," he said.

If the voters support the purchase, the current building will be put up for sale to offset some of the cost of the new building, Micciche said.

"If you think about how important the tourism and visitor industry is to the economy of the city of Soldotna and the challenges the visitor center (has)," Micciche said. "We felt that it was proper to the voters in Soldotna to become knowledgeable of the issues and vote on the building."

Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle Glaves said if the vote goes through, the time it would take the chamber to move into the new building is unknown.

Logan Tuttle is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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