Homer activities getting attention, say Wythe, Wrede

Homer Mayor Beth Wythe and City Manager Walt Wrede took center stage at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center’s luncheon meeting at the Alibi on Tuesday. Their state-of-the-city report provided an overview of 2013, a “really good year” for the city, according to Wythe, and plans for 2014. 

Both Wythe and Wrede stressed the importance of the Spit and the port and harbor to the Homer economy. Projects completed, in progress and planned include:

• Float replacement;

• System 5 electrical upgrades;

• Ramp 3 upgrades that include handicap accessibility;

• A $6 million Spit Trail project, funded with cruise-ship head-tax dollars that will expand the trail to the Deep Water Dock and to the end of the Spit;

• Construction of public restrooms on Pioneer Avenue, the Deep Water Dock and at the end of the Spit, also funded with cruise-ship head-tax monies;

• Design to extend the Deep Water Dock to increase its ability to receive freight for the Homer area, as well as other locations on Southcentral Alaska;

• Upgrades to the harbor’s five-lane load-launch area funded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Inquiries from companies interested in using the harbor have become increasingly frequent, said Wrede.  

“The port and harbor is booming. We have an ‘open for business’ attitude. I think we’re making inroads and people are taking notice,” he said.

Turning to the topic of a new public safety building, Wythe there sere several reasons for its consideration. For starters, placing the police and fire departments under one roof would result in a savings to the city. Wythe also noted that the state of Alaska contracts for the use of jail cells, which are currently out of compliance with state standards. 

“This is not a done deal. There are a lot of steps to go,” said Wythe, who estimated it was a five-year project. “So, we are just starting to take baby steps, looking at properties and design, things we can do ourselves.” 

Topping the mayor’s list of construction activities undertaken during 2013 were the paving of 23 miles of highway and the two-phase project to bring natural gas to the city from wells east of Anchor Point. Phase 1 focused on the downtown area and is mostly complete; phase 2, which included delivering natural gas to the Spit, has continued through the winter.

“The project is ahead of schedule and looks like it could be done by August,” said Wrede.

The city’s 2014 budget of $25 million includes $12 million for the general fund, $4 million for water-sewer, $4.5 million for the port and harbor, $3 million for capital projects and $2-plus million for the city’s internal services.

“Overall, the city’s in good shape,” said Wrede.

In spite of it being a balanced budget, however, Wrede said there were several areas of concern, including a disconnect between what residents want the city to provide and what residents are willing to pay for those services.

“We struggle with that every year,” said Wrede.

Other concerns noted by the city manager included:

• Cuts to state and federal budgets that will result in less dollars for capital projects and operations;

• A drop in Kenai Peninsula Borough property assessments;

• Increasing insurance costs for the city’s 105 employees, which cost the city $2.4 million in 2013;

• Decreased funding for city’s anticipated depreciation needs;

• The possible loss of funding for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

Anticipating 2014 to be as successful for the area as 2013, Wythe said avenues are being considered to ensure others know the city is more than a visitor destination.

“Homer is a place people want to live,” said Wythe, herself a 40-year resident. “It’s the responsibility of the city to make it possible for people to live here sustainably.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.