By Jenny Neyman
If you live in the Soldotna area and are recreation- or activity-minded, chances are you’ve thought at least one of the following:
It’d sure be nice to have longer stretches to walk along the Kenai River.
It’s too bad the Unity Trail doesn’t continue through Soldotna, so we don’t have to walk, run or ride a bike right alongside the Sterling Highway.
I wish there were an indoor place to walk, or some turf on which to practice soccer before the snow melts.
It’d be great if teens had more maintained, supervised places to hang out and recreate.
Can’t someone do something to make the Sterling-Kenai Spur highways “Y” intersection less of a pain for pedestrians and bicyclists?
Or the big one — it would be so great to get back and forth from Kenai Peninsula College and downtown Soldotna without having to go all the way around Kalifornsky Beach Road to the Sterling Highway to the David Douthit Memorial Bridge over the Kenai River.
Well, Soldotna, that wishful thinking is on a path to being granted, with the Soldotna Parks and Trails planning process nearing completion. After reviewing past planning efforts, meeting with stakeholder and user groups, conferring with partner agencies and organizations, and soliciting input through a public survey, Casey Planning and Design has released a semifinal, 75 percent-complete draft Soldotna Parks and Trails Master Plan.
An open house will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Soldotna Sports Center, where the public can view the draft plan and its recommendations, ask questions and provide feedback. The draft plan, map and associated documents also will be available on the city of Soldotna’s website. The plan is open for review and public comment through May 10. Planners will contact season-specific recreational user groups over the summer — which might not have been thoroughly represented in the survey conducted this winter — for more input, then submit the plan to the city council for approval next fall.
“We want to keep it at a level of ‘What about?’ As opposed to, ‘Why didn’t they?’ At this point it’s still dynamic,” said Andrew Carmichael, city of Soldotna Parks and Recreation director.
In its current form, the plan incorporates a veritable Christmas morning of community wish lists. Some are sure things already in the works or accomplishable within the next five years, while others are further out on the horizon.
One of the leading takeaways from the survey is that people want more connections. There are plenty of parks, playgrounds and facilities, survey responses indicate — expect the perennial interest in more fishing platforms — but not enough ways to get between them, especially in the winter.
Part of the plan’s approach is just to identify what recreational facilities, trails and routes already exist. For instance, the Unity Trail loses its separation from the highway in Soldotna, turning into a sidewalk right alongside the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways. But many runners, walkers and cyclists instead detour through residential areas, along Knight Drive and Kobuk Street, to get through town without having to be right next to heavy traffic. The plan map has a big, bold, orange arrow highlighting that route to let people know about it. There’s also a bike route identified between Soldotna Creek Park and Swiftwater Park along existing streets. And the city’s already extensive series of sidewalks are outlined in red, with just a few little dotted sections indicating spots where sidewalks will be added.
“Ultimately we want to produce a map that helps newcomers, helps visitors, helps residents get the big picture of what the heck is out there? ‘I didn’t know that trail was there.’ That’s what we keep hearing, ‘I didn’t know that was there.’ So to have a comprehensive place to get the information about classes, programming and facilities. Even for me and for the city there’s just been a lot of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they were doing that,’” said Nancy Casey, of Casey Planning and Design, the consulting firm designing the plan.
Beyond what’s there is what could come. The city is already planning on finishing a small section of walkway along the Kenai River near the bridge to connect the existing fishing platforms and walkways at the visitors center and neighboring Centennial Park. Also in the “done deal” category, to be happening soon, is additional campground space at Swiftwater Park, construction of a pavilion at Soldotna Creek Park, the addition of a fenced dog park area at Aspen Park, and a link between the river-walk platforms at Centennial Park up the hill to the trails system within the park.
Some of the more intermediate goals are recreational opportunities for teenagers. Part of that is looking at ways to expand the existing skate park and BMX track at Karen Street Park, possibly to cover the skate park, add bathrooms and perhaps a playground and grass area for soccer fields. Though there has been talk for years of a teen center in Soldotna, it doesn’t appear feasible currently to establish its own building, Casey said, so planners instead are considering ways to expand and reconfigure the sports center to fill that void. The center already is due for renovations and expansions, being that it’s 30 years old.
“We’re trying to incorporate the need for that into the sports center but we’re not sure how that will look or feel yet — maybe a lounge, a game room, a cool lobby. I have teens, I know it takes a certain feel to want to be there. They’ve got to feel like nobody’s watching, even though they are. They’ve got to be able to do a little bit of this and that but not be crazy. There’s a really delicate balance,” Casey said.
The survey didn’t get as robust a response from teens as desired, so planners are forming a teen focus group and surveying area youth specifically, not only about what they’d like to see happen at the skate park and sports center, but if they’d like to see more opportunities at the schools. For instance, there used to be teen coordinators at the high schools through the Community Schools program, Casey said.
“We’re going to poll the teens about that, ‘Do you want to have more hangout ability at the schools themselves?’ If that’s true, how do we program that, who’s there with them, what are we doing?” Casey said.
Soldotna Creek Park might see further development in the future, as well. One idea is to make it a draw for winter use, with walking trails maintained year-round, the installation of an ice-skating loop, room for ice sculptures and a burn barrel to keep toasty.
“The whole Norman Rockwell scene,” Casey said.
In terms of infrastructure, stoplights are being considered at the sports center, which also would serve the southern trailhead to Tsalteshi Trails, and at Gaswell Road, which could involve rerouting College Loop Road to connect to the new light. There’s a blue dotted arrow along College Loop and West Poppy Lane, designating a possible separated trail, as that route already is popular with runners, walkers and cyclists. Blue dotted lines also occur along Funny River Road and the Sterling Highway running through downtown Soldotna.
“We’re trying to figure out ways where people don’t have to walk right along the edge of the Sterling. You get those puddles and the dirt and just the noise and dust,” Casey said. “It’s better than it was there but now we’re looking at trying to provide even more separation. Whether a snowberm would go in between the trail and the road, or just make the sidewalk a lot wider. Until such time that we can get something actually totally off the road, we have to deal with what we have today,” she said.
Of the bigger projects incorporated into the plan is a proposal for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to build a separated trail alongside Ski Hill Road that would be maintained year-round for skiing, skijoring, running, cycling and walking with or without dogs. There’s even the possibility of a tunnel under the highway to connect the refuge with Tsalteshi.
Another major project is to create a separated, Unity Trail-type path from Soldotna out along the Sterling Highway toward Sterling, at least as far as Birch Ridge Golf Course.
And the biggest fish to fry is probably also the longest standing on the wish list.
“A bridge across the Kenai has been talked about forever,” she said.
The draft plan recommends putting in a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from West Redoubt Avenue across the river to the Kenai Peninsula College campus. It would carry utilities, but no cars.
“What that accomplishes is it helps the students who live in town to be able to walk or bike to the college, or kids from the high school might run over there for a class. And it gives the community a place to be on the river without the vehicles, just to be able to sit and enjoy the peacefulness of the Kenai,” Casey said.
Some of these projects can be done by the city, whereas the Ski Hill Road trail, the Sterling extension of a Unity Trail and others would be projects of other agencies, which the plan supports.
“I’m excited about the partnerships and expansion of our programming,” Casey said. “Just the unified approach is very encouraging to me. When I met with people I didn’t feel like they were all fighting. I felt like they’re all working together and supportive of each other,” she said.
Completing the master parks and tails plan was the top Parks and Recreation goal in the city’s Envision 2030 comprehensive plan. Having it mapped out with recommendations prioritized will help these projects come to fruition, Carmichael said.
“It provides a framework, it gets it on paper. A lot of times if you just have this concept that feels nice, even if it’s a good idea but it’s just kind of hanging out there, it’s very difficult to get funding. When you get a question like, ‘Well, who wants this?’ You can put your hands on a document that says, ‘Five hundred seventy-eight surveys said we should do this out of a town out of a 4,000,’” he said.
He and Casey are thrilled with the response to the survey — 578 people participated. Not all are from within city limits but use city and surrounding area facilities.
“The city considers what they do to be for a bigger region. So even when we do our level of service calculation, we don’t calculate just for the city’s population, necessarily, we calculate how are we serving the actual population that uses it,” Casey said. “We’d be rock and roll stars if we just used 4,000, because the city really does provide for a lot.”
Carmichael said he recently met someone involved with Parks and Recreation in Philadelphia, who conducted a survey and got less response than Soldotna did.
“The city of Philadelphia, out of a gazillion people, they got 567. We got 578 from 4,000 people so we couldn’t have hoped for a better response,” he said.
Not all were completely glowing, of course.
“When you start looking at the study it says, ‘Whatever you do, build us whatever, but please make sure and take care of the stuff you have first,’” Carmichael said.
That is heard and being taken into consideration, he said, and having this plan will help minimize roadblocks of opposition as projects are pursued.
“When you get questions, ‘What are you going to do about this? ‘You can say, ‘Boom, we’re going to do this, this, this and this.’ And if someone says ‘Well, I don’t like that idea,’ you can say, ‘Well, 362 other people did.’ It’s a plan that’s been endorsed by the community, you can hang your hat on it and say, ‘Yes, this is what the people wanted,” Carmichael said.
Having a finalized draft with such wide community participation also should help in securing funding.
“If you have this in an approved, public, involved document, the more chance it has to get funded at the city level and then the state level and even federal funding,” Carmichael said. “When you’ve got a constituency that’s come together and says, ‘Hey, we all want this.’ I mean, we got more surveys than voted in the last mayoral election.”
Casey said she’s excited about the possibilities in the plan and is pleased to see how committed area residents are to being active.
“The Unity Trail I think really kind of springboarded the idea of we should be active, and we want to be even more active. It’s the whole idea of ‘Build it and we’ll do it.’ Like Tsalteshi, who’d have ever thought it would get that big, and people are still wanting more. So I think it’s changed the culture of the community into being more active, and it’s not just physically active, but socially active,” she said.
“It kind of almost seems too good to be true, in some ways,” Casey said.