Story last updated at 9:49 PM on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

City council searching for plan B

CIRI shifts focus from center

By Ben Stuart
Staff Writer

The Homer City Council will take its first steps in formulating a Plan B or not for the town square project Monday, when it votes on whether to move forward with planning for a new city hall/town square.

On the agenda are two contracts to ECI/Hyer and Jay-Brant Construction worth a combined $316,586 for 65 percent design and an updated cost estimate for the project.

So far, the city has spent more than $470,000 to bring the project to the 35 percent design stage. But the failure of a an $8 million bond proposal during the March 25 special election may have altered any future plans.

The bond proposal was needed by the city for two reasons to help pay for the nearly $12 million project and as a tool to show public support for the plan in order to secure other funding.

With a resounding 2-1 defeat at the polls, however, all bets are off as to what will eventually happen to the currently undeveloped 30 acres plus of land in the heart of town.

"I don't suppose it'll be empty 20 years from now," said council member Dennis Novak. "But it could be."

The city and Cook Inlet Region Inc. had been talking about the city acquiring a 1-acre portion owned by CIRI next to the proposed new city hall site. In preliminary discussions, the city and CIRI had talked about trading land, buying the lot outright or the city paying CIRI's share of extending a road and utilities to the proposed city hall. After the failure of the bond proposition, Homer City Manager Walt Wrede asked CIRI if it would still be interested in selling the 1-acre lot.

"My response was no," said Greg Jones, vice president of development for CIRI. "We don't consider there's a viable project for that property."

Jones said with major retailers like Fred Meyer and Kroger pulling expansion plans and city hall not likely to happen, CIRI will focus its energies on projects outside of Homer. To preserve its options, CIRI will keep its town center property of about 16 acres intact.

"We're not going to break this project up," Jones said. "The smartest thing is to keep it as one piece."

CIRI also isn't actively selling its town center property, Jones said. It has not listed the property for sale, although CIRI would entertain any serious offer.

"We're open for ideas and opportunities," Jones said.

Novak said the reason there wasn't any contingency plan for a failed vote at the polls was because any options that have been discussed so far aren't that appealing.

"We've heard a lot of ideas. Most of them are just situations that have lots of issues," Novak said. "We've been over this ground already."

One of the big driving forces behind the plan was the consolidation of the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. To consolidate, the college needed the city to move out of the current city hall.

The college was given $2.5 million from the state for the acquisition and remodel of the current city hall building. College Director Carol Swartz said she's waiting to see what happens to those funds.

"Unfortunately we don't know anything," Swartz said. "I'm eager to find out what they (the city) are doing too."

Council member Mike Heimbuch said the city may weigh other options to accommodate the college.

"The city needs to decide if they need to look at other alternatives to let the university move into this building," he said.

The city received a $2 million grant from the state Legislature for the project in 2006 and has spent nearly $500,000 of that money for design work up to this point.

The remaining funds will be available for three more years and that timeline can be extended without requiring a re-appropriation.

The key for any future plans, said Novak, is to gather widespread public support for the project.

Gathering such support in Homer has been difficult in the past, said Mayor James Hornaday in an opinion piece in this paper.

Speaking not as the mayor, but as a 40-year citizen, Hornaday pointed to several examples of starts and stops for most public buildings in Homer including the high school, South Peninsula Hospital, the university, the Homer Public Library and the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.

"It does appear that the more things change, the more they remain the same," Hornaday said in his piece.

The next Homer City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Cowles Council Chambers at City Hall.

Ben Stuart can be reached at Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story.