Dunleavy budget cuts prompt Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference to take 1-year hiatus

Editor’s note: This article has been changed to reflect that most of the people who routinely attend the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference were not students participating for academic credit.

After an 18-year straight run, the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference will go on hiatus for one year and won’t be held in 2020, the Kachemak Bay Campus announced on Tuesday.

Sponsored by KBC, the local branch of Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage, the conference held at Land’s End Resort in mid June brought together nationally recognized writers and poets with students attending from Alaska and the Lower 49 states. Faculty also included local writers and poets, including Rich Chiappone, Erin Hollowell and Nancy Lord. About 150 people attended, many of them visiting from out of town. Registrants could enroll for academic credit, but most of them were not students.

The hiatus comes in the midst of budget cuts to the University of Alaska imposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, according to a press release. Faced with vetoes of $130 million by Dunleavy to the university budget, the UA Board of Regents signed a compact with Dunleavy that reduced the cuts to $70 million over three years — still deeper than the cuts the Alaska Legislature had made.

“As the University continues to make efforts to downsize, it is important to look at all programming and evaluate its impact on its core mission of educating students,” said KPC Director Reid Brewer in the press release. “This one-year hiatus will provide campus leadership an opportunity to review the conference’s purpose and scope, and to make changes necessary for its continued success.”

The re-evaluation of the writers’ conference came about from a larger look at university and KBC programs prompted by Dunleavy’s budget cuts.

“Every campus is looking at things that are good and bad with each of the programs,” Reid said on Tuesday. “… The plan is we can take a step back, look at the program, and come forward refreshed into the future. It’s kind of a chance to evaluate that particular program.”

KBC Director Emerita Carol Swartz led the writers’ conference from its start in 2002 and through this year, when she ran it after retiring as director. Brewer said he didn’t know if Swartz would continue to direct the conference. He also said he didn’t think the conference would move from its location at Land’s End.

Swartz did not return messages seeking comment in time to be included in this story.

“The important part is to look at how we can serve both students and the community,” Brewer said. “How is the conference meeting that need?”

The conference has been funded partially by an endowment from Caroline Musgrove Coons, a legacy created by the Coons estate after her death to support writing programs in Homer. Corporate and other donations also support the conference as well as registration fees. Brewer said a lot of the cost of the conference is for staff hours and logistics at the university and KBC.

“We have to look at how we spend money in the future and be very thoughtful about how staff time is used,” Brewer said.

Brewer said the college is starting to get the message out about the hiatus. The planned keynote speaker for 2020 was Andrew Sean Greer, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

“When we start thinking about the 2021 conference and what it will look like, we’ll start planning for it next spring,” he said. “…We’re trying to look at this as a positive instead of something negative, instead of looking at it in a bad direction. We’re thinking of ways to make it a stronger conference.”

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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