By Jenny Neyman
Six cars drove past Wildman’s convenience store on the Sterling Highway in about two minutes on a recent weekend afternoon. Two of them pulled in. Wildman’s is one of the few businesses in Cooper Landing that stays open in the winter, much less on a Sunday.
General manager Heather Harrison says the business makes most of its money off the crowds of fishermen, tourists and commuters that clog the highway in the summer. But winter business is important, too.
“We stay open all year, we’re one of the very few places that stay open all year, and a lot of that is due to the traffic we’re able to pull in off the highway,” she said. “I do feel like people anticipate us coming up now at this point that we are one of the only places open and if they have to go to the bathroom, this is where they’re going to want to do it.”
That, and the fact that she’s on the Cooper Landing planning advisory committee, has her keeping an eye of the Alaska Department of Transportation’s plans to reroute the Sterling Highway through town. On Dec. 11, DOT announced its preferred route, building 5.5 miles of new highway north of town, and rejoining the existing Sterling Highway at Mile 51.5 between Cooper Creek and Gwin’s Lodge.
It’s the most-expensive alternative of the four DOT considered, and involves the least mileage of new road.
“I find the final plan to be a little surprising that they are bringing it out so close to town. It’s not going to bypass nearly as much as people thought,” Harrison said.
That’s both good news and bad to Harrison. First, she’s been worried what the bypass would do to winter business.
“Would I take the bypass as a traveler going to Anchorage to get around all the S curves, away from the road, yeah, I would. It’s safer, it’s faster,” she said.
But with a shorter bypass route, Harrison thinks it’ll help business.
“Because the go-around is short, I don’t think it’s going to affect business as much as I thought it would,” she said.
At the same time, she’s not in favor of the project. She would rather DOT upgrade the existing road — which engineers say isn’t a viable option because some sections are too steep and pinched. Short of that, Harrison thinks the project should do more of what it was originally touted to do — move the road away from the Kenai River and all the fishing spots and other recreational attractions, to relieve summer traffic congestion. Harrison definitely doesn’t like the estimated $250 to $304 million-dollar price tag.
“Is the expense worth it? I can’t say that I agree that it is. While we’re paying for the state funding, we’re paying for the federal funding, too. It’s money that could have been spent much more adequately,” she said.
At the far end of the Wildman’s parking lot is the Big Shots Espresso stand. Marlea Bellinger has lived in Cooper Landing for about 20 years now. She says a highway project is needed, but maybe not exactly this highway project.
“I hate to see them tear up pristine, beautiful ground. But, all in all, it’s for the better good, because this is a horrible road,” Bellinger said.
She sees as many summer accidents as winter, and the existing road will only be upgraded where the new highway joins it, leaving the current road through most of town as it is — with narrow lanes, S curves, near-nonexistent shoulders, little visibility and no provisions for walkers or bicycles.
Stan Welles will probably still make the drive into Cooper Landing. Welles is on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, and said he worries what the bypass might do to Cooper Landing businesses, like Wildman’s. That’s where he and his wife, Nikki, stopped for coffee and ice cream Sunday on their way home to Sterling.
“The tragedy of running bypasses past communities is destruction of local businesses,” Welles said.
Welles sees the need for safer travel through Cooper Landing, but he sees a lot of other needed road projects, as well, and shrinking state funds at the same time.
“Right now we’re under a tight budget and, sure, we could say, ‘Yeah, we’d like to have a four-lane highway all the way to Anchorage, but it’s not really realistic unless we want to make a lot of other sacrifices,” he said.
For more information on the highway project, visit sterlinghighway.net.