HERC Campus renovation discussions continue

Roughly a dozen community members gathered in the Cowles Council Chambers Monday night to voice their support for the Homer Education and Recreation Complex, or HERC, Campus renovation action plan, which is being discussed by the Homer City Council. The council worksession was held in advance of the Sept. 27 city council meeting where a public hearing and vote for Ordinance 21-58 will be held.

Ordinance 21-58 would allow the council to appropriate $75,000 from the HERC CARMA Fund for professional services for a public process and feasibility study for the new multi-use center to move the project forward.

As the “gateway to Homer,” as council member Heath Smith called it, the HERC Campus features two buildings, HERC 1 and HERC 2, on 4.3 acres of land at the corner of Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue. In addition to the buildings, there is a parking lot, skate park and green space on the premises.

Currently, HERC 1’s lower level is serving as the location for the community recreation program, which features the gymnasium, an activity room, restrooms, storage and areas for outdoor recreation activities, while the Parks division uses the upstairs for storage, work space and offices.

HERC 2, the smaller building, is utilized as the home for Public Works Building Maintenance division, as well as additional city work space.

“Done correctly, I think a project on the HERC Campus site could be quite an attraction for visitors and residents while also becoming an important anchor for downtown Homer,” City Manager Rob Dumouchel said.

According to the Economic Development Administration, the American Rescue Plan has allocated $3 billion to help communities nationwide to rebuild their economies that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A portion of the ARPA money goes to accelerating the recovery of communities affected by the pandemic that rely on the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation sectors, such as Homer.

The city is working with the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District to apply for the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation grant to help fund the construction of a new multi-use community center. The goal is to submit the application by the beginning of 2022.

“I think that the timeline with the EDA money potential is aggressive, but if we hold on to all the work that has happened already both with council and councils of the past and previous studies and the community work that’s happened, I think it’s doable to get us there,” council member Rachel Lord said.

Currently, the HERC Campus renovations team is working on a five-stage plan for the project, including Vision, Scoping, Implementation Plan, Procurement Process, and Design and Construction. According to Jan Keiser, the team is currently at the scoping stage to determine what the community needs and wants for the complex and how to secure the funds to bring the new space to reality.

“Homer has done a great job of lining up what its vision looks like,” Keiser said. “Now it’s time to take the next step.”

Ordinance 21-58 would provide the funding for the Scoping phase by hiring a consultant to help with the conceptual design, long term funding plan, implementation strategies and public input.

“Before we go grant writing or hoping for large sums of money to come into our community, we need to know exactly what we’d like to build, and if we can afford it once it’s already built,” said Julie Engebretsen, deputy city planner.

“The idea of ‘build it and they will come’ is not a plan and not one that we promote,” she continued. “So the scoping money that we’re asking for from the council helps us get closer to redeveloping the HERC Campus.”

In 2018, the HERC Task Force presented recommendations for the facilities, including the current scoping work which will go before the council on Sept. 27, as well as demolishing the buildings and plan for a new one. However, because of the pandemic, all plans for the HERC Buildings were delayed.

“In the task force time frame, that was demolish the buildings even if you weren’t ready to build something new,” Engebretsen said. “I think today, if we’re going to demolish them, we’d like immediate plans and some funding in place to build something new, because as we’ve seen from COVID, having publicly owned space is really important.”

Several council members and community members voiced concern about tearing down the community spaces before having plans to build something else.

“That building will not come down unless we have a clear path to replace in it in a timely manner,” Smith said.

Representing a large majority of community members in attendance were pickleball players who participate in games at the HERC. Holly Van Pelt encouraged the council to consider more indoor and outdoor recreation areas, especially the pickleball courts. Other residents, like Kathy Hill, were excited to see the plans for the HERC moving forward after so many years.

“I’m just so please that we’re here at this stage,” Hill said.

Other concerns shared included ensuring the facility will integrate into the Homer community instead of compete with any pre-existing facilities, is ADA compliant, flexible for change in the future, ensure the outdoor space will be better utilized and more.

The Homer City Council will host a public hearing for Ordinance 21-58 during the Sept. 27 regular meeting, beginning at 6 p.m. in the Cowles Council Chambers. The council will also vote on the ordinance later that evening.

If approved, the consultant contract proposal would be advertised as quickly as the week of Sept. 27.

More information about the Sept. 20 worksession can be found at www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-worksession-180.

For more information about the HERC Campus project, contact Dumouchel at RDumouchel@ci.homer.ak.us.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.