Guiding Growth: Looking backward before moving forward

Let’s go on the uncertain path together

In 1978, the editor of the Homer News, Chip Brown, wrote a short essay musing about the future: “Is there any temptation greater than to know beforehand what will happen to us ?… a map of everything that will happen: the people will we will fall in and out of love with, the nameless disappointments, the moments of unreserved joy. Who could resist if a scythe-toting figure said, ‘In this box is the story of everything that will happen to you. Go ahead. Open it.’ ”

Well, I did. The box was gray and held together with a rubber band. The library staff handed it over to me with little fanfare. My purpose was admittedly sentimental: I wanted to create a personal archive of the letters my dad wrote to the local newspaper across the decades, so I would look in every single Homer News, starting the year he arrived into town.

Only I started a year too early, and immediately became taken in by the urgency of the ever-present and the future that the community was endeavoring to create in the late 1970s — at odds with each other as ever, trying to grapple with this question of “growth” and identity: who/what would Homer be?

The shifts happening were things we take for granted today: the Bradley Lake project to provide electricity was still in its infancy, the Bypass was under construction, KBBI was about to be launched on-air, and there was a “new” library under construction on Pioneer Avenue. Sam McDowell and Brother Asaiah were launching weekly letters to each other like missiles over the fate of commercial versus sports fishing. Other development issues included parking, a harbor expansion, and the permitting for Homer’s first condos.

What people wanted was as vast as it is today. In January 1980, when the Homer News asked residents what they thought the community should be like by 1989, the answers were far ranging. Art Hagberg, realtor and city councilman replied, “I’d like Homer to become the Santa Barbara of the North, a real high-class tourist city. I’d envision condominiums, and the downtown area landscaped.” Jeri Whitman, Sound Shoppe employee, took the opposite view: “First of all, zero population growth. I’d like the Bypass left as it is with no industrial boom there.”

Regardless, of course, Homer kept growing. There were big stories, like the burning of the Club Bar and the reveal of the scandalous mural on the new Club Bar, with a Phoenix rising from the ashes flanked by a nude man and a nude woman.

The controversy over nudity in public art was eclipsed by an areawide mail out by Rev. Gordon Winrod that decried the mural as part of a Jewish conspiracy. Suddenly the naked figures were nearly forgotten, as Homerites rallied against the antisemitic views. Cliff Calkin was quoted, “I would rather my children see the nudity displayed on the Club Bar every day than to read a letter like that sent by Rev. Winrod even once.”

In between the big stories of those days, were smaller asides: A girl nearly drowning in the harbor, a sighting of Big Foot in Iliamna, or simply Gwennie: a beloved missing mutt who appeared in “lost” advertisements throughout the summer of ’78.

Sure, I was technically looking at the past, but I was reading the past in the present tense. I felt like a soothe-seer who knows the impending calamities. When funding wasn’t received for oil spill response training, I gasped and shook my head, thinking of the impending Exxon Valdez disaster. When a new surgeon arrived on scene, I gave a small nod of gratitude, knowing that in several decades he would save my life.

Looking at the old papers was personal. I knew or had heard of so many of the characters. The fate of the community was also my fate, and now my children’s fate.

Recently I was asked to participate in an emerging community group hoping to create opportunities to discuss our shared future through a discussion series called Guiding Growth. Participating community members are unaffiliated and anyone is invited to help brainstorm, implement, and participate in the discussions. Through civic discourse, good conversation, and relevant resources, we hope to help guide the vision of how the Homer community develops. “Unaffiliated” is important because we come with a shared passion for our community, but without an agenda.

The group decided that the first conversation could be a sort-of retrospective using some of my research. But because I’m more of tourist time traveler than either a historian or at the very least a living witness to that decade, Homer author Tom Kizzia generously agreed to provide deeper context and share the story of the George F. Ferris, a controversial oil rig that resided in Kachemak Bay during the 1970s.

Kizzia was an editor and reporter for the Homer News in the 1970s, and weaves an excellent story. If you are not familiar with the George F. Ferris (I wasn’t) it has all the elements of a good Homer controversy with sparring passions, conflicting interests, and a touch of humor. The George F. Ferris will be our springboard to talk about how Homer is growing, what we value, and our ongoing challenges.

If you’re curious, I haven’t found a single letter yet from dad. I got distracted by all the other stories and making my own life happen. But if his letters don’t show up soon, my birth announcement in 1981 might beat him to the scene.

Chip Brown closed out his essay about the future with this: “I don’t think I would open the box. I think I would take it to the top of the bluff and throw it off. And then—free and clear—start down on the uncertain path ahead.”

Let’s go on the uncertain path together. In another 40 years I’ll be 80, what more will Homer create in the intervening years? The first conversation is Saturday, April 29, 4-5:30 p.m. at Christian Community Church.

If you care to read ahead, here is a link to Tom Kizzia’s story on The Short Happy Life of the George F. Ferris:

Mercedes O’Leary Harness is a freelance writer and nonprofit consultant born and raised in Homer.