Story last updated at 11:53 a.m. Friday, August 2, 2002

Square takes shape
by Carey James
Staff Writer

In recent years, many of the forested, undeveloped areas in the center of Homer between Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway have become home to new businesses, lots and homes.

But from the air, a large block of green is visible in Homer's heart, stretching from below the Heritage Hotel to the west and the Grog Shop to the east to the highway below. In the center is the land more than 1,500 people gathered on for the annual KBBI Concerts on the Lawn last weekend.

For several years, the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust has advocated for the Homer Town Square Project, an idea that could include space for trails, fairs, markets and other facilities in the big block of green.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity that we have an undeveloped" block of land, said trust Executive Director Barb Seaman. "It lets us plan a little bit."

The Homer Town Square Task Force committee is hosting an informal gathering Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in the basement conference room of the Bay Realty building. Landowners adjacent to the proposed Town Square property and other interested central business district landowners are invited.

While most of the property is owned by Cook Inlet Region Inc., the City of Homer owns a small parcel, as does the University of Alaska. Harbor Enterprises Inc. owns a strip bordering the CIRI land.

The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust is currently fund-raising to purchase the one parcel that is privately owned, a 3.47-acre parcel known as the Poopdeck Property, through which the Poopdeck Trail now runs.

The property owners, family of Clarence "Poopdeck" Platt, who passed away in 2000, have given the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust until January to raise the $300,000 needed to purchase the property, as well as repair and maintain it and the property's cabin. More than half of that money was raised when an anonymous donor bestowed $175,000 to the trust for the property purchase.

Additional donations are being sought from businesses and individuals, and Seaman said, thus far, the response has been encouraging.

"From the response and the donations, I think people really support this project," she said.

The Town Square Project has been a discussion for several years. Seaman said the land trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving land with valuable natural, recreational or cultural features, has helped facilitate meetings with stakeholders and community members. This year, the Town Square Task Force, which consists of Seaman, City Manger Ron Drathman, Councilman Mike Yourkowski and business representatives Kate Mitchell and Tom Hall, has continued that effort.

The findings of both the task force and the community group have been compiled, and the first images of what the project could look like are expected to arrive from a designer in coming weeks.

Seaman said, however, that the owners of the property surrounding the proposed Town Square will likely have the first look at the conceptual plan, and even with their blessing, the plan is just one idea. Plans are likely to change as the concept develops.

"Nothing is set in stone," Seaman said.

What the conceptual drawing is likely to include, however, is a civic center to the Town Square. One proposal is that the city's new library could be built on the city parcel off Main Street above the KBBI concert site.

While the library would certainly fit the Town Square plan for a civic anchor well, some are concerned about the costs of building on the land. Currently, there are no roads or utilities to the property.

"There is no infrastructure in town square right now," said Councilman Kurt Marquardt. " I agree with Barb that some sort of civic anchor needs to be there, but I'm not sure if the library needs to be there."

Drathman said in the next month or two, he will make a recommendation to the city council as to a site for the new library. Though he said he has yet to complete a cost analysis of the sites, one site without the costly access and utility issues is on the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue, next to the Kachemak Bay West Campus.

Drathman said the Sterling Highway site has utilities and access and is not landlocked.

With or without the library, the Town Square project is moving ahead. In February, the project received a $15,500 state and federal grant to provide additional planning help to the new task force. In addition, the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research will do a cost-benefit analysis of the project based on the conceptual design. The analysis is scheduled to be completed by this fall.

Seaman said at that point she hopes to present the findings to the council. She said the city's support is key to the entire project.

"We can't move forward without the city's participation," Seaman said. "The city needs to make a commitment."

Marquardt said his perception is that the city is eager to see the conceptual drawings of the Town Square, and said development of the city core is important to the central business district.

"If we keep expanding our boundaries (of the central business district), it is less likely that the Town Square Project will happen," he said.