Organizing the Arctic Winter Games first brought Tim Dillon to the Kenai Peninsula, and a decade later, he will take another regional role as executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
Dillon, who spent the last seven years as Seldovia’s city manager, took over the role from Rick Roeske last week. The Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, a nonprofit headquartered in Kenai, provides support for businesses on the peninsula, ranging from advice on business plans to small loans. He has served on its board of directors for seven years as the representative from Seldovia, and initially started at the organization in April as the economic resource specialist after retiring from his position as city manager of Seldovia.
The nonprofit also provides research on economic conditions with its annual Situations and Prospects report and the five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, and also recently completed the local edition of a statewide business survey targeted at retention and expansion.
The survey provided a chance to travel around the Kenai Peninsula and conduct interviews with a variety of business owners, Dillon said. Listening to their concerns about government policies, economic conditions and other issues has helped him gather information and learn what best benefits businesses, he said.
“They would say, ‘Don’t just send us (a survey), actually come here,’” he said.
In the past, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s goal has been unclear, he said. The nonprofit operates independently from the Kenai Peninsula Borough but receives funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and has historically had two assembly members on its board of directors — a resolution passed at the July 26 borough assembly meeting will drop the representation to one.
However, the assembly still offers direction and the organization typically reports back at least once a year to the assembly.
Dillon said he’d like to see that communication improved. The reports to the assembly usually come annually during budget season, but he’d like to touch base more often to make strategic planning more effective.
In addition to the reports the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District compiles, it also organizes the Industry Outlook Forum, held each January, and Industry Appreciation Day.
While both events are widely attended, he said he saw potential to tweak and improve them.
“I could see starting smaller groups (at the Industry Outlook Forum),” Dillon said. “You still want to get those updates from the oil and gas companies, but for the tourism folks, maybe they’d want a chance to sit down and talk together.“
There’s room for potential changes in the microloan program the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District offers too, he said. Currently, only businesses that operate year-round and have been turned down for a loan from “traditional funding sources” are eligible, according to the organization’s website. Under the current parameters, the funds have to be used for startup costs or to purchase new equipment. Dillon said someone suggested allowing some of the businesses in the area that may not be year-round to use the microloans as “bridge dollars” to help them branch into a new business operation or offering.
Overall, he said he sees an opportunity for the organization to serve as a facilitator for businesses on the peninsula.
If a business needs a contact and is not sure who to call, or there’s dissatisfaction with a rule or a hangup in a permitting process, the economic development district could help, he said.
“(We) advocate for the small business, advocate for the large businesses,” Dillon said. “One of the most important things is just listening to (the business owners).”
Dillon began his career in the sports and entertainment industry. When he was called in to organize the Arctic Winter Games, which took place on the peninsula in 2006, he said he was able to connect funding sources from the state and federal governments to buy school buses for all the schools in the borough school district, to build a new ice rink in Homer and to install lights on the Tsalteshi Trails system near Soldotna.
Beyond the games themselves, though, he said he was able to build relationships through a joint love of sports.
Partnerships are critical to supporting businesses most efficiently, he said. He cited the example of a hemp manufacturer who approached the Small Business Development Center for advice. Because the Small Business Development Center is federally funded and marijuana products — including hemp — are federally illegal, the business owner could not find any assistance there.
Because the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District is locally and state-funded and marijuana is legal in the state, it was able to step in and offer him assistance, Dillon said.
To that end, bringing together resources and information is key in the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s role, he said.
“Anything we can do to help our businesses helps us all,” he said.
Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.