Public Works director to retire in January

Homer Public Works Director Jan Keiser is retiring from her position with the city in January.

Keiser grew up in Alaska in several communities across the state, including Fairbanks, Kodiak and Kenai. She attended college for civil engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then took a job with the U.S. Public Health service in Anchorage as a project engineer. At the time, Indian Health Services, predecessor to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, was installing water and sewage services all over the state of Alaska.

Keiser worked mostly in the central region of the state, including the Kodiak Island villages, Nanwalek, Tyonek and Port Graham. Then, Keiser took a position with the City of Valdez before taking a position in Homer in the late 1970s. At that time, the city was getting grant money from oil revenues and there was a lot of infrastructure need because it was new town, Keiser said.

Working for Indian Health Services provided U.S. Army Corps benefits that she had 10 years to use and Keiser left Homer for the University of Washington in Seattle.

“I was involved in some projects out on the port and there were a couple of construction claims. I got involved in these arbitrations or mediations and what I remember is that the lawyers didn’t understand what the engineers were talking about and vice versa because they didn’t speak each other’s language. So I thought if I went to law school I would be a better construction manager. That was my intent for going back to school,” Keiser said.

After law school, Keiser stayed in Seattle for several years, working for a large public agency building projects like sewage treatment and transit projects. “I took a position as a construction counsel working for an engineer to prevent construction claims and understand contracts and teach people about how to avoid construction disputes and that’s what ended up becoming my career,” she said.

Keiser talked about some of the changes she’s seen in Homer since the mid-1980s.

“Population wise the city really has not changed much. I think the Homer city population was about 3,500 and the larger service area population was about 10,000. The service area is much larger now. I think people have been able to find property outside of the city that’s more affordable.”

Another feature she’s seen grow is the community’s environmental organizations. Keiser mentions Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, the Research Reserve. There are half a dozen different organizations now that didn’t exist back then, she said. That means there’s more support for clean water, storm and management.

“In the early ‘80s, storm management mostly meant culvert construction and moving water from point A to point B. We looked at culvert locations — it was all about hardscape. There wasn’t a lot of talk about water quality or discussion about the connection between stormwater and groundwater erosion. That awareness and knowledge started growing with the research from the new environmental organizations. They also started looking at more of the connections between the natural environment and the built environment.”

Keiser refers to her experience in Seattle, where the city has had a green infrastructure component much longer than the Alaska region.

“The City of Seattle was very conscious of the effects of stormwater on clean water for many years. The first organization I went to work for, Metro, in Seattle, was responsible for cleaning up Lake Washington. It was so polluted people couldn’t swim in it at that point,” she said.

She compares the green infrastructure feature in Seattle to what she saw change in Homer from the early 1980s. “Back then people weren’t really looking at much more than the Department of Conservation and they were really just concerned about oil spills. Now, there’s much more of an awareness of the environment.”

Another project Keiser worked on was the reconstruction of Pioneer Avenue, which turned it from a two-lane road to the three-lane road with sidewalks there today. She says if there is one thing she wishes she could have done on that early project in Homer, it would be to have to included rain gardens so water didn’t all run into the culverts.

“Also, back then a lot of the people who were moving into the community fought with the city about general structure of public space. We had people moving here from small towns in other parts of the country and they didn’t want streetlights or sidewalks. They didn’t want to be regulated. It was a fight to get some of those things, but now you have people screaming for public space and trails and year-round use of amenities. People are looking for recreation centers. We’ve grown up. Gentrified, if you will. I use that word in a good way.”

She talked about the current status of the HERC buildings on the corner of Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway, site of the first schools constructed in the community. According to Keiser, the city is looking for EPA grant funds to treat the large HERC building as a “brownfield,” which means testing the building for polluting substances and eventually demolishing the building.

The EPA definition of a brownfield, according to their website, is “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

The smaller school building on the site, which has been confirmed to have asbestos and PCBs, also needs to be treated as a contaminated site. “Some day the city will need to find the money to demolish it,” she said.

Keiser’s last official day of work with the city will be Jan. 5 and then she will leave to visit family and then take a six-week vacation to Mexico to see whales.

“It’s my epic retirement trip,” she said.

Then she’ll return to Homer and has been invited to serve with some of the local environmental organizations.

“I think I’ll enjoy doing that and I want to keep my fingers in some of the city projects. I think I’ll be able to encourage them. I will consider myself a resource for the new public works director and the new city engineer.”

Paul Dyal will be the new Public Works director and should be in Homer in early to mid-January after an unexpected delay. The city is in the process of recruiting for the new engineer.

Keiser hopes to be able to contribute useful tips for the new staff. Then, she’ll start looking for new fun things to do.

“I’m having a lot of fun teaching myself to sew again. I know there’s an active fiber arts community in Homer and I’d like to get more involved in that.”