By Jenny Neyman
Jason Tauriainen and Bob Jameson both live in Nikiski, but the way they describe it sounds like two completely different towns.
Tauriainen’s family homesteaded out north. He grew up in Nikiski and said he’s happy to raise his kids there now. The community has a lot to recommend it as a home — friendly neighbors, great schools, ample room for houses to be spread out and lots of recreational opportunities, he said. And there’s plenty of reasons to visit — lake fishing; bed and breakfasts; beaches for rock hunting, walking and riding off-road vehicles; campgrounds and a great recreation center with trails, tennis courts and a pool.
That’s a vastly different take than Jameson has on the community. In his view, it’s both the industrial eyesore capital and rust belt of the Kenai Peninsula, with dilapidated buildings, cars and abandoned junk lining the road and a skyline dotted with oil rigs and industrial plants. Crime — especially theft and vandalism — and drugs run rampant, and there’s no law enforcement to protect residents, he said. Not only is Captain Cook State Park basically the one and only reason to visit Nikiski, Jameson warns potential tourists to stay away, with a militia movement headquartered in Nikiski and rumors of a dog-fighting ring.
The completely opposite assessments of life in Nikiski also differ in yet another way —Tauriainen shares his view on a personal basis, in one-on-one conversations, while Jameson posted his on the Internet, in a site with informational content geared toward potential visitors.
The site is http://www.kenai-lodges.com, a clearinghouse of information on the Kenai Peninsula and all its communities, with Google ad links for all sorts of tourism-related businesses, like lodges, fishing guides and cruise lines. The site’s home page greets visitors with this message:
“Welcome to Kenai Lodges, ‘Best Places To Stay in Alaska’, shows how to locate comfortable, affordable lodging anywhere in Southcentral Alaska. Included within this site you will find information on hotels, motels, fishing lodges, cabin rental and guided and unguided Alaska tours. Also included are suggestions for local activities, places to see, things to do, and much more.”
In the community descriptions that follow, Homer is listed as “One of the most visited destinations on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s Two Thumbs Up for Homer AK for the Kenai Vacation Itinerary.”
Soldotna also gets glowing praise as, “the center of everything that happens on the Kenai Peninsula. From here it’s just a short hop to all destinations on the peninsula. This is also the Kenai River Salmon Fishing headquarters where you find the majority of guides as well as plenty of places to stay in Soldotna that offer world famous Kenai River Salmon Fishing. The WOW factor is high for the fishermen in Soldotna.”
Anchor Point — “lots of fun to be had here from camping on the beach to an evenings stroll through town.” Cooper Landing — “is situated in the most magnificent scenery on the Kenai Peninsula.” Even tiny Hope is lauded — “if a relaxing time is what you are looking for, look no further then Hope AK for a real Gold Rush town from the turn of the century.”
Only two communities get panned, Kenai and Nikiski. Kenai is listed as “more of a bedroom community to the more popular city of Soldotna just 7 miles away. There is little available in Kenai, and virtually no major tourist attractions. The most prominent tourist facility in Kenai would be that the main airport for the Peninsula is located here.”
Clicking on the Kenai link brings up a continuation of that treatment: “Kenai, the quaint little community in the shadows of Soldotna where progress has stood still for years. … There is currently little shopping available of interest to visitors, and few major tourist attractions within the city limits of Kenai. … Overall we found residents preferred not to support tourism here as this is a residential area lacking in the facilities to support a healthy number of visitors.”
Choosing a link to “Things to do in Kenai” brings up a trip review credited to a Tim Morrison, who rails about how much he disliked the community, and how the only two enjoyable things he found to do were get a sandwich at Arby’s and visit Kenai Landing, the historic cannery complex at the mouth of the river.
Nikiski’s description is even less charitable. The home page says “Nikiski is home to a number of radical militia groups … As the oil and gas production diminished many of the once thriving businesses closed or abandoned their Nikiski facilities leaving behind an area now known locally as the Rust Belt of the Kenai Peninsula.”
Clicking on the Nikiski link, viewers are greeted with two bolded statements at the top of the page, starting off in red text:
“Beware: Before you travel through Nikiski, read the Nikiski Militia Movement on MSNBC.”
And, “Notice: February 1, 2010; Word that a dog fighting ring has moved into Nikiski has local residents up in arms as many family pets have been reported missing in the past few months. If you have pet dogs, keep them safe by not allowing them out of sight or out of a fenced in area that is in plain view and monitored.”
The community description talks about Nikiski’s industrial bent and that many residents are shift workers: “Areas with these demographics have proven themselves to have an increase in adverse social issues like those Nikiski is experiencing. Drugs, alcohol, vandalism and domestic violence dominate this area decreasing its value as a tourist destination. This is a rough area experiencing many social problems. We do not suggest this area for families or casual visitation at this time. We give Nikiski ‘Two Thumbs Down’ and suggest it not be added to your list of places to visit on the Kenai Peninsula.”
Under a heading of “Will The Future Of Nikiski AK Be Conducive To Tourism?” Nikiski is said to be “not known as an area with much to offer those vacationers to the Kenai Peninsula.” There’s a paragraph talking about inadequate protection and response from Alaska State Troopers, a photo of a man in handcuffs and this statement about crime:
“Vandalism, vehicle joyriding, petty theft and teenage parties were cause for great concern on the North Road last year. Domestic violence, drunk driving and driving without a license or insurance kept the Kenai Police and the Alaska State Troopers busy while several cases of sexual abuse showed that Nikiski is not immune from big city crimes. This is not how we need to be portrayed to those looking to visit our area and facilitates the immediate need to reverse this trend if tourism is to be in the future for this area.”
Following a link of “Things to do in Nikiski Alaska” brings up a YouTube video at the top of the page, which plays “Marijuanaville,” a takeoff on Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” A section about Cook Inlet Beaches starts with: “NOTE: Most beach access has been closed for security reasons due to the existence of the industrial complexes that remain today.”
The site recently came to the attention of Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and several Nikiski residents, who did not take kindly to the descriptions of their towns.
“I was notified that I should look at this site, so I read it and I just went, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Porter said. “It was negative what they said about Nikiski, but my goal, of course, is Kenai and my concerns are here in this community, and I kept thinking about all the wonderful things we have available and this gentleman made it sound like there was no reason ever to come here.
“Everything he had to say about Soldotna was wonderful. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, how can you say we have no retail here?’ It was just so inaccurate. And no tourist attractions? We’re talking about the Russian Orthodox Church here.”
Porter sent an e-mail to the site administrator — Jameson — responding to statements made on the Kenai Lodges Web site and listing retail options, new developments and tourism attractions in Kenai.
“I listed off all the wonderful things to do in Kenai. At the end I said I could go on and on about all the positive things about Kenai. I couldn’t stand by and watch him trash our community, and think that people from Outside would be logging in to his Web site. Because it appears he actually had ads from like cruise lines and fishing guides on there, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is horrible. People are actually buying ads on his Web sites,” Porter said.
Porter notified Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, about the site, and Ala got in touch with other tourism organizations. Ala, Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Council, and Ron Peck, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Associaiton, e-mailed a letter to Jameson on Thursday asking him to modify the site, “to either aid us in attracting visitors and their economic impact, or at the very least, remove the inflammatory content of your site that currently discourages visitation.”
The site was making the rounds at Nikiski Middle-High School last week, as well, where Tauriainen works. He also hoped Jameson would modify the content, especially the parts bashing Nikiski.
“It talked about a ‘severe crime rate’ and drug rates and that basically there’s nothing to see except for Discovery Park, and everything else is dilapidated and breaking down. There’s drug rings, dog-fighting rings and militia groups ready to do whatever militia groups do to tourists, I guess,” Tauriainen said.
“There are a lot of good people who like it out here, and it portrayed Nikiski in a terrible light. From a community standpoint, no community is perfect, but there are a lot of great people who live in Nikiski. People look out for each other out here, and I’ve never felt unsafe living here. I loved my childhood here. I have three kids and they’re having a great experience in the schools and they just love growing up out here, too. It’s a great place if you want to live where houses aren’t all packed in tight and enjoy the outdoors and the beaches with all the lovely rock formations and all that stuff. You’re not going to get that anywhere else,” he said.
Jameson said that hasn’t been his experience living in Nikiski. He and his wife moved to Nikiski when her job with Tesoro was transferred to the peninsula, and they plan to move as soon as she retires. Living in Nikiski is the worst decision they’ve ever made, he said.
“Unfortunately, we live out here and we’ve had just a tremendous amount of problems,” Jameson said.
He said their house has been broken into five times — once while his family was home — his dogs have been shot at by neighbors, his kids have been mistreated, he’s even photographed a drug deal and troopers have been no help in any of these situations. They tried to move and rent out their house, but after four months discovered that the renters had started a marijuana grow operation and caused $35,000 in damage. Now they’re afraid to leave the house unattended, Jameson said.
“I could just go on and on and on,” he said.
He said all the negative Nikiski content on the Kenai-Lodges site is “100 percent accurate.” The founders of the Alaska Militia do, indeed, live in Nikiski. There have been rumors of dog fighting. There are break-ins and thefts and the nearest trooper post is two towns away in Soldotna. And he said the portrayal of Nikiski on the site is representative of what a lot of people think of the community.
“Absolutely everything on there can be substantiated,” he said. “You can go to Colorado and people there know of Nikiski. If you go Washington State people know of Nikiski. It’s got a reputation from 20 years ago. People warned us against going to Nikiski. It’s not anything new. This is so well-known out there. People here are oblivious to it because they like to tell themselves it doesn’t happen.
“I don’t want somebody else moving here thinking that it’s a regular community like they would find in Soldotna or outside of Anchorage or something like that.”
Jameson said that, instead of getting upset about the negative comments on the Web site, those complaining about the site should instead get upset about the problems and direct their energy toward fixing them.
“If they’re upset about it, rather than coming down on somebody who is trying to bring people’s attention to it, why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t they get police protection here?” Jameson said. “It hurts, and it’s all within their power to fix it, but you can’t turn your back and ignore things and say it’s not happening. It is. I would say this is the first time I’ve lived in a community that has done this. Most of the communities I’ve lived in have faced their problems head on.”
Jameson said he was surprised at the out-of-the-blue attention to the site, since it’s been posted for years. He used to do Web design, with his business Aurora Pages Press. In that venture he’d design Web pages for clients and also buy existing Web pages. In some purchases, the Web site he was interested in came with a bunch of others. He said he thinks Kenai-Lodges was an ancillary site he picked up along the way, and it hasn’t been active in years.
“We own about 2,200 Web sites that I know of. Oh, god, it’s got to be way more than that. If somebody has something we want, we go in and buy it and get all the sites they have. The ones that have no value, like Kenai-Lodges, they just sit there,” Jameson said.
There are links to some of his other sites off the Kenai-Lodges site, including Whales in Alaska, Anchorage Alaska, Alaska Cabins, a variety of cruise-related sites, Kenai River Property For Sale, Kenai Fishing Lodges and Alaska Fishing Package. Jameson said he opened the pages to free advertising through Google ads. Some lodges, hotels and fishing charters were listed by Jameson because he wanted to point the businesses out to visitors. But the businesses with Google ads appearing on the sites don’t even necessarily have to specify that they want to be on Jameson’s site. The ads just appear by virtue of advertisers signing up with Google and the sites having Kenai Peninsula-related content.
Jameson said he doesn’t do much Web design anymore and maintaining all those sites got to be too time-consuming and headache-ridden. He said the Kenai-Lodges site was made for a client who didn’t pay their bill, so he took the site back. The content came from e-mails he received from visitors, from comments made on an Alaska outdoors forum Web site he also used to maintain, and his own travels.
“Most of that was stuff we were throwing on there from here and there, different things, different trips we’ve taken, stuff like that. It started out as a travelogue, I guess you would call it,” Jameson said.
Morrison’s review of Kenai, for instance, was sent in after Morrison’s visit, and Jameson said he toned the posted version down quite a bit from what Morrison actually wrote. Morrison had booked a fishing trip through a link on the Kenai-Lodges site, and when the trip went awry, he contacted Jameson to vent his frustration, Jameson said. Issues like that were always cropping up with the sites, he said.
“It’s like you’ve got to fight every inch of the way tooth and nail. You give stuff to one person and everybody else gets mad. One guide said I was (through the site) sending too many fishing clients to one guide and not him, but they wanted lodging, he didn’t have any cabins and the other guy did.
“That was when I said, ‘No more, I’m done with this.’ I don’t even make any money off this. I do it for free. I mean, come on,” Jameson said.
Jameson said he quit designing and maintaining Web sites about seven years ago, and now he writes code that is used by corporations. He wouldn’t explain his current business further, saying it was too complicated to explain.
“I don’t really get too much into exactly what I do, because I’m the only one doing it right now, and it would take hours to explain,” Jameson said. “… I don’t know an easy way to put it. As far as I know we may be the only ones in the United States that actually do what I do, and I just stumbled across it.”
On Thursday, Jameson said he wasn’t going to modify the Kenai-Lodges site and was offended by Mayor Porter’s initial e-mail.
“She was trying to tell me what to write. Well, first thing I said is, ‘Geez, did I move to China, or what? You want to rewrite this for me? You want to change things?’ And what she put in (her e-mail), all of us that read it were laughing because none of it is true. It’s a gross over-exaggeration of what goes on in Kenai,” Jameson said.
He said he’d be willing to sell the site if someone makes him an offer. However, after receiving the letter from Peck, Ala and Hamrick on Thursday, Jameson did remove the site. He responded to the e-mailed letter, saying:
“I have lost all faith in the Alaskan government, lost faith in the media, and lost faith in the people of the area. When the government evokes censorship on the people, be it directly or indirectly, everything our forefathers had fought for is taken away. What a Hoot…
This must end here, enough time has been wasted, the entire site has been removed as directed. The remaining references to the Kenai Peninsula will also be removed from all sites over the next few days to further remove any need for your threatening phone calls or emails. I have done my part, now it’s time for you to do yours.”
Porter said she was satisfied that the site had been removed, although the incident opened a sticky can of worms regarding Internet marketing to consider. She recognized Jameson’s freedom of speech and said she didn’t think she could have forced Jameson to change or remove the site, since he wasn’t doing anything illegal.
Though not illegal, Porter said she didn’t think it was fair to Kenai or a good way to respond to issues one may have with the community they live in.
“To me, it’s really sad when people want to trash your community and not try to make a difference. That’s what I said to him in my last e-mail. You need to become part of the solution if you really feel there’s an issue here, and not just criticize without taking part and trying to make it better,” she said.
Tauriainen also acknowledged Jameson’s right to free speech, but said he didn’t think it was appropriate to trash Nikiski so harshly and publicly on the Internet under the guise of being an impartial tourism resource.
“People can write their own opinions on the Internet, but don’t make yourself out to be a tourism Web site. If you want to have a blog and say you hate Nikiski, that’s great. Do your thing. But don’t try to portray yourself as an organization. It wasn’t a person giving his opinion,” Tauriainen said.
Jameson maintains that his opinions can all be substantiated and that he’s free to share them online. Instead of some of the existing tourism Web sites about the peninsula that focus solely on the positives and don’t mention the negatives, he just chose to highlight the negatives of some areas to give what he felt to be a more accurate guide to the peninsula, he said.
“I can see where she (Porter) would be a little upset, but it is true and it is accurate, as far as we’re concerned,” Jameson said. “I’ve just not been raised to not tell the truth. I’m not going to tell people to come out here when I live here and we fear, literally, to leave our house. It’s been a very difficult place to live. So you might want to tell Pat — don’t push it. It just keeps coming back to, ‘God, I hate someone telling me what to write.’”