Story last updated at 2:24 p.m. Thursday, October 30, 2003

Faulkner to reinvent, restore historic Wards Cove
by Carly Bossert
Staff Writer and Morris News-Service Alaska

photo: news

  Artwork provided
In this drawing provided by Wards Cove's new owners, the multi-purpose nature of their plans for the historic Kenai River site can be seen.  
The buzz of industry will soon be restored to the abandoned 100-year-old historic Wards Cove cannery site on the Kenai River.

This time, however, while fish processing will play a small role in the site's revitalization, tourism and retail are the new owners' main objectives.

Jon Faulkner of Homer and Steve Agni of Anchorage seek to translate their previous experience in Alaska's tourism market to a seasonal multi-use facility reminiscent of Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Faulkner and Agni are not strangers to this type of venture. They are partners in both Homer's Lands End Resort and the Van Gilder Hotel in Seward.

"This is the same ballgame but a different scale. We're going to the World Series," Faulkner said.

In this endeavor, the partners plan to turn the 65-acre, 35 building site into a resort featuring lodging, a restaurant, a fish processing operation, several forms of recreation and youth camps, as well as multiple entertainment and arts offerings.

Agni estimates it will take millions of dollars in investments to make their plans for the site, which they have initially dubbed Kenai Landing, a reality.

Since the site incorporates a hodgepodge of buildings, some of which date from the 1920s, extensive renovation is planned. Some environmental cleanup of contamination from heating oil and diesel fuel also will be necessary. Agni said they will invest millions of dollars renovating the facilities.

"There's always concern and anxiety that you're going to bite off more than you can chew, but I'm confident because the site has so many possible attractions," Agni said. He added that the attractions planned for Kenai Landing already exist and have proven successful in other parts of the state.

Through it all, however, Agni and Faulkner say they want to maintain and restore the site's historic value.

"What is central to this project is that we recreate the town," Agni said. "Wards Cove at the height of its production was a small town."

The exterior of many of the structures will be maintained and Agni and Faulkner plan to establish a museum area as well as look into getting some of the buildings included in the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's 100 years of history. It's not lost, but it's here, there and everywhere. ... I believe, if done right, (Kenai Landing) will be a major attraction just by virtue of its historic value," Faulkner said.

Before it closed in 1999, the cannery was home to many who ate, slept and worked there year-round, particularly in the busy summer months.

So, much of the permitting and infrastructure that Agni and Faulkner need to make their visions materialize is already in place.

For one, the location already boasts 250,000 square feet of enclosed building space, including 50 to 60 rooms in bunkhouses that will be easily converted to suit the resort's lodging plans.

"Something like this would clearly not be feasible without the unique ingredients that are present on this site," Faulkner said.

The historical element, waterfront location and permits and existing buildings would have been a tempting combination, Faulkner said, but what really convinced the partners that their plans would be viable was Kenai's accessibility to major population center's via the road system.

"If all the ingredients, one through four, were there, but say it was across the bay or in Kodiak where there is no road system . . . I think that's the most important element," he said.

Although the Kenai Peninsula does not present the same 1.5 million population base that drives Pike Place Market, Faulkner said, the partners see it as a prime location for their endeavor.

"I don't buy that theory that people bypass Kenai. There's incredible cross visitation between Soldotna, Homer, Kenai and Seward. For most people the Kenai Peninsula is one singular destination," he said.

They hope to have at least the lodging and promenade aspect operational by Memorial Day in time for next summer's season. The facility will not be open year-round initially.

"Not too many developments in Alaska can be supported exclusively by the local population. We are definitely a tourist destination," Faulkner said.

He added that depending on the success of the site, it could be open all year in the future.

Regardless, the city of Kenai, which approved a conditional use permit for the development last week, is more than amenable to having Faulkner and Agni come to Kenai. The sale of the site is due to close on or before Feb. 13.

"We're interested to help facilitate and make easier any further development over there," said Casey Reynolds, the city's economic development director. "It's going to mean a lot to the city in a variety of ways."

The operation is a potential boon for the city of Kenai, which took a hit to its sales tax revenue when Big Kmart closed its doors.

Though the opening of Home Depot should help the city's sales tax revenue recover, another commercial operation in town won't hurt.

The venture looks to employ between 25 and 50 people when it is open part of the year.

The area along the once-vibrant Kenai River waterfront is zoned heavy industrial. The Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to approve the permit.

"I am very happy to see an abandoned facility on the waterfront be rejuvenated, especially with the historic aspect we do have," said commissioner Barry Eldridge.

Agni and Faulkner have ambitious plans for the sprawling site.

"The site is so grand and there's so much opportunity you could get really lost by not focusing on precise and achievable goals," Agni said.

Several of their goals require participation from the public and businesses since the bulk of the services and activities that are planned for the site will be offered by outside groups who contract or lease with Kenai Landing.

"This is one of those things that is highly difficult without the support of the community," Faulkner said.

Faulkner said he and Agni hope to bring in a value-added microprocessor company that will process both commercial- and sport-caught fish and operate a retail component where they sell fish products over-the-counter.

They also hope to reinstate use of the dock facilities on the Kenai River by installing floating docks and a boat launch ramp into the river.

Other river-related activities that are envisioned for the site are guided sport fishing and perhaps a water taxi operation similar to what exists in Kachemak Bay.

"The ability to enjoy the river and get to the river is of course important to the site," Agni said.

Recreation will be available in many forms at Kenai Landing, possibly including horseback riding, a ropes course and climbing wall. A main portion of the activities will be related to youth camps that Agni and Faulkner plan to establish at the site. The camps likely would be outdoor-based and could include fishing instruction, where campers would learn boating and fishing skills, as well as the ethics of ecology and stewardship, Faulkner said.

The promenade area of the site will most closely resemble Pike Place.

Faulkner said they plan to have 30 to 50 small retail spaces to lease to vendors and are soliciting statements of interest from individuals and companies wanting to providing anything from visual arts and crafts to bread baking and coffee roasting.

Agni said in time they hope to cultivate a professional exchange where artists from across the state and the Lower 48 come to stay at the site and create their art in studio space as well as sell it at the promenade along with local artists.

There will be a stage for bands to perform as well as plans for building a theater. Faulkner said he hopes to eventually have some kind of entertainment going on at least four or five nights a week.

Faulkner said they plan to apply for a liquor license and attract a brewer to operate at the site.

Peninsula Clarion reporter Jenny Neyman contributed to this report.

Carly Bossert can be reached at carly.bossert@homernews.com.

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