The vision to bring a main pedestrian street to Soldotna, parallel to the Kenai River, has long been just that — a vision.
But armed with a new grant, the City of Soldotna now has a year and a half to build out a plan to make that vision happen, in the hopes that a more walkable downtown could incentivize business development and tourism in the city.
John Czarnezki is the Soldotna’s director of economic development and planning. He said the city wants to create a walkable “main street” next to the Kenai River — in particular, the stretch spanning Soldotna Creek Park to the bridge on the Sterling Highway.
“We are trying to provide the downtown that Soldotna has not yet had — that it doesn’t have,” Czarnezki said. “And that’s a pedestrian friendly downtown.”
Today, businesses shield the Sterling Highway from the river, so cars driving by can’t see it. The boardwalk that parallels the Kenai River is largely cut off from the rest of downtown.
In the city’s 2015 Downtown Improvement Plan, consultants said the number one guiding principle for the city was to “bring Soldotna to the river.”
With help from those consultants, Soldotna has already outlined some possibilities for what that development might look like, like more seating alongside the water and more walkable sidewalks.
Now, it has $360,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration through the American Rescue Plan Act, plus $90,000 from the city, that will all be put toward building out a plan.
“With the approval of the grant, we are basically now sitting at the start of an 18-month timeline,” Czarnezki said. “That’s the length of the grant for us to develop a request for proposals, find a consultant that can help us navigate that process.”
At the end, he said, he hopes to have a master plan for riverfront redevelopment, which will include environmental and feasibility analyses.
Then, that master plan will head to the Soldotna City Council for approval
“And that will set the stage then for us to actually begin building,” he said.
To get the grant through to the finish line, the city solicited letters of recommendation from local business owners, including Pamela Parker.
Parker owns Everything Bagels on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna and was previously a member of the Soldotna City Council. She said she loves the idea that the city could become more walkable.
“Where someone can come maybe down from Anchorage for the weekend, or even from out of state, park their car near our riverfront area, get out and just spend hours walking along the river, hanging out at Soldotna Creek Park and perusing all the shops along the riverfront, eating at restaurants that maybe overlook the river … it just sounds so perfect for our community,” she said.
Parker said she’d like to see the town be more connected – and accessible.
“And I think that’s really the missing piece,” she said. “We gotta figure out how to get what’s happening at the river to the rest of the city of Soldotna and somehow bridge those two areas with accessibility so that it’s not a life-risking adventure to go from Everything Bagels and walk over to the park in the evening to watch music.”
One hurdle is a lot of the land alongside the Kenai River is in private hands.
Czarnezki said the city will work with those landowners closely through the planning process. And he said one goal is to make their land more valuable.
Down the line, he hopes there’s more funding from the Economic Development Administration for implementation of any plans the city makes.
“We’re going to cross our fingers and hope that in addition to this planning grant, that there may be funds available 18 months from now that will allow us to implement this project in parts,” he said. “Or pieces. Or the whole thing.”
Czarnezki said there will be opportunities for feedback and ideas from residents and landowners once planning gets going.