By Jenny Neyman
Debra Hunt’s reaction at her first sight of the new Nikiski Senior Center is representative of most:
“When I walked in here I said, ‘You have got to be kidding! Where’s the Princess Lodge?” said the center’s new executive director.
“Beautiful,” “fabulous,” “huge, “amazing” and the like were heard throughout the crowd gathered for a ribbon cutting and open house held Saturday to celebrate the completion of the facility Sept. 15. Guests gathered for lunch in the open, airy, ski lodge-esque, 14,000-square-foot facility on the shore of Marie Lake off Holt Lamplight Road in Nikiski.
“It is an impressive building and it’s going to support these folks where they need it,” Hunt said.
The bulk of the building is a large, open room with vaulted ceilings and windows looking out on Marie Lake, doors out to a deck facing the lake, access to the brand-new commercial kitchen, and a substantial stone fireplace rising to the height of the roof. At the front entrance are an ample-sized conference room and office space, bathrooms and reception area.
Upstairs (or up the elevator) is a cozy loft space with a giant-screen TV and comfy seating in which to read a book, work a puzzle or play a game. Downstairs (or elevator) is a craft room, showers, headquarters for the peninsulawide Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training program, and a room stocked with emergency supplies. It’s built to earthquake-resistant specifications, with walls up to 14 inches thick for insulation, and once it’s outfitted with a generator, the plan is for the facility to serve as an emergency shelter for the community, should the need arise.
Across the parking lot are eight housing units, already full. That’s a new addition to Nikiski senior services made possible by the new facility. But beyond that, the building is more about expanding offerings than creating new ones. Nikiski already had a solid foundation of senior services — so much so that the old center, on Island Lake Road, was simply lacking enough room.
“This building means increasing our services,” Hunt said. “We want to increase transportation, we want to increase Meals on Wheels. We can distribute more to those who need that assistance, who need that helping hand.”
The old building was getting to be too small to accommodate use, both in gathering and office space and kitchen capacity. There was no room for expansion, and even a large garage that was built to house the center’s senior transportation and meal-delivery van had been given over to much-needed storage. Additional space had to be rented to house the center’s various service programs.
So, 13 years ago, the center’s board of directors started working on a plan to build a new, larger center. Key to that plan were Jim and Nedra Evenson, who homesteaded about 160 acres on Lake Marie and agreed to donate 7 acres of lake frontage and sell another 5 at less than market cost.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do with this property. We had no idea of selling the property or doing anything like that with it. But I can’t think of anything better for this property than to be involved with something like this,” Jim Evenson said, and hinted that his son, Thor Evenson, would likely be amenable to providing even more land from the homestead to accommodate additional senior housing units in the future.
Dreaming of a facility like the senior center is one thing. Making it happen is another, more costly step. Construction was enabled through a $5 million appropriation through the Legislature. But even money alone doesn’t make a facility like this get built, much less operate. That takes people with the foresight, organization and expertise to see those plans through.
“I’d really like to say congratulations to the Nikiski community for having a facility like this. And not only that but for the vision that the board of directors here has had for a number of years in order to build a place that is capable of taking care of our seniors, and taking care of any others who want to come here,” said Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who was on hand with Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“This is a great facility, absolutely beautiful setting and a beautiful building, and it’s going to serve the community for a long time. So thanks to everyone who had a part in helping get this constructed,” Navarre said.
Vision and a determination to support area seniors are two things the project had going for it all along, Hunt said.
“I think it’s a passion for serving these elders,” she said. “… Just out of sheer passion, pure love for their fellow neighbors. To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s truly Alaskan spirit that put it here. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Even though Nikiski is out of the way, compared to the easier access of more-centralized communities like Kenai and Soldotna, senior services still abound in the area through the center — including transportation services, home meal deliveries, referrals for people needing help navigating Medicare or other programs, in-home housekeeping assistance, plus all the games, meals, activities and wellness programs offered at the center.
“We have a lot here, and the people who have been supporting the Nikiski senior citizens have been dong it through sheer willpower because we are out of the way. But they’ve made their mark with this building,” Hunt said.
Wayne Pattison, secretary of the board of directors, has been involved with the senior center project since its inception. Over the years he’s been impressed to see the growth in senior services in Nikiski, and now has noticed seniors choosing to retire in the community.
“Nikiski obviously caters to its seniors. Nikiski is, I think, going to end up being a senior destination,” he said.
The center is open to more than just Nikiski seniors, however. Lunch, at 11:30 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, is open to the public. And the center is designed to be rented out for functions, such as weddings and conferences. Rental revenues will help support operational costs for the building.
“We’re here, use us,” Hunt said.
Marilyn Bannock and Martha Snyder were testament to the draw of the facility, making the half-hour or so drive from Kenai for the open house. Given their location, they don’t plan on being regular attendees, but admired the building for those who do live a little closer.
“It’s warm and cozy,” Bannock said.
“Beautiful scenery, beautiful setting,” Snyder added. “If we lived out here we’d probably be here often.”
Bill Perrigo, of Nikiski, said the new center is also a little out of the way for him to drive out regularly.
“But it’s a beautiful building, and I hope a lot of people take advantage of it,” he said.
Olga Hilleary, of Nikiski, was, like most, awed her first time seeing the center.
“It’s beautiful, it’s huge, I had no idea. It’s really nice,” she said.
She and her daughter, Jeannie Smith, couldn’t resist a sneak peek and drove through the parking lot a couple of weeks ago. Even as impressive as the building is from the outside, the interior was more so.
“When we came and saw it, what a surprise. It’s beautiful,” she said, predicting that the center would see not only quantity use, but quality, as well.
“Who could have a bad day here in these beautiful surroundings?” she said.