Council considers supporting business retention efforts

As the old song goes, make new friends but keep the old. That’s the approach the Homer Economic Development Advisory Commission will take with a new program: Business Retention and Expansion, or BRE, the idea of working with existing businesses to make sure they thrive and prosper.

At the Homer City Council meeting on Monday, the council heard a presentation by Rachel Lord, a member of the Economic Development Advisory Commission, on Business Retention and Expansion, and then the council introduced on first reading Ordinance 17-20, appropriating $1,400 for a mass mailing to local businesses to encourage them to take an online survey on Business Retention and Expansion.

While cities often talk about bringing new businesses and industries to communities, 76 percent of job growth comes from existing businesses, Lord noted in her presentation.

“Existing businesses are really our best investment,” she said. “We need to recognize our biggest strength is here in our existing businesses.”

To better understand the problems and needs of existing businesses, the Economic Development Advisory Commission has developed an outreach plan.

It will develop an online survey based on ones done nationally and by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.

The Economic Development Advisory Commission also will do a social media campaign and work with local media and the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. The $1,400 appropriation requested would go for a direct mail campaign.

“We’re trying to get answers to what’s working and not working for the business community,” Lord said.

Council member and business owner Shelly Erickson said she supported that effort. She’s talked to many other business owners about working in Homer, Erickson said.

“One thing they are talking about is they don’t feel appreciated by our town,” Erickson said. “I want to encourage people to shop locally. It’s easy to go online at Amazon, but our local businesses collect sales tax.”

At its May 8 meeting, the council zipped through a light agenda in a a 90-minute meeting that harkened back to the tight, short meetings run by former Mayor James Hornaday. Monday’s meeting was helped by issues absent of any controversy. With council member David Lewis not present and with an excused absence, every vote taken passed 5-0. Mayor Bryan Zak attended telephonically and Mayor Pro Tem Catriona Reynolds ran the meeting.

In addition to Ordinance 17-20, the council considered two other issues involving money:

• Introduced on first reading Ordinance 17-19, accepting and appropriating commercial vessel passenger taxes from the Kenai Peninsula Borough in the amount of $27,630. Cruise ship passenger tax revenues can only be used for projects benefiting cruise ship passengers, and if passed, the money would be used to remodel the Ramp 2 bathrooms near the Coal Point Boardwalk and the former harbor office, and

• Passed Resolution 17-049, awarding a contract for $67,662.50 to Paul’s Services of Anchor Point for Hickerson Memorial Cemetery expansion. Even the highest bid of $86,709 came in under the engineer’s estimate of $170,000 for adding more cemetery plots to the city graveyard on Diamond Ridge Road.

In other business, City Manager Katie Koester told the council she’d received an email from Kachemak Bay Campus Director Carol Swartz looking for council support on an appropriation from the Kenai Peninsula Borough to the Kenai Peninsula College. Koester said borough Mayor Mike Navarre is asking for a 5.6 increase to the college. That prompted citizen activist Sarah Vance in public comments at the Committee of the Whole to question if the increase is at the expense of the borough school district’s budget.

“Are they taking from smaller kids and giving to bigger kids?” she asked. “I thought the whole idea was to tighten belts.”

That’s not quite true that the college has asked for an increase, Swartz said on Tuesday in a phone interview. In 1991, borough voters approved a 0.10-mill levy on property taxes to support the Kenai Peninsula College, which includes campuses in Soldotna and Homer. Swartz sent the city an email asking for support for the annual allocation from the borough to the college that comes from that levy. In the 2017 fiscal year the levy raised $790,958 and for the 2018 fiscal year the levy would raise $823,804. Navarre isn’t asking for an increase, Swartz said, but for KPC to receive its full amount as raised by the levy. The increase comes from higher borough property values.

Kenai Peninsula College programs supported by the levy include JumpStart, tuition waivers for high school juniors and seniors to take college classes; Adult Basic Education and GED outreach to villages; a veterans affairs coordinator, and other programs, Swartz wrote in an email. The property tax levy also supports jobs at the college. The borough assembly meets on May 16 to consider the appropriation.

Monday’s meeting also represented another milestone: the last meeting for City Clerk Jo Johnson, clerk for the past 10 years and before that the deputy clerk from 2003-2007. Johnson retires at the end of the month. Deputy Clerk Melissa Jacobsen will be promoted to city clerk and will take over as the council’s clerk at its May 30 meeting.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, the mayor and council praised Johnson for her service.

“I know how much work the clerk puts in behind the scene making us look good,” Zak said.

“Thank you so much for helping me through all the meetings,” Reynolds said.

“We appreciate all the work you’ve done on our behalf,” said council member Tom Stroozas. “You will indeed be missed.”

“I’m really going to miss you,” Erickson said. “Thanks for teaching us along the way when I came in green.”

“Congratulations to Jo on her last meeting,” said Aderhold.

“She’s been nothing but awesome, a great asset,” council member Heath Smith said of Johnson. “Thank you also for leaving us in capable hands with Melissa. She’s been a great mentor.”

The council next meets at 6 p.m., the Tuesday after Memorial Day, in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall. Ordinances introduced at the May 8 meeting come up for second reading and a public hearing then.