Wednesday, August 27, 2008

RIP to ‘the riff’ — Early school funding means fewer teachers left hanging

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The appearance of color is generally a welcome herald of spring. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, however, the arrival of the color pink is dreaded, since it usually comes in the form of a euphemistic pink slip handed out to teachers and support staff near the end of the school year.

But this year, the early arrival of green — as in money — meant pink could be associated with flowers again, not layoffs, making the start of school this fall a much rosier experience.

The Joint Legislative Education Funding Task Force, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, met last summer to hammer out changes to education funding in Alaska. The group’s recommendations called for an increase in the base student allocation — the amount a district gets for each student attending its schools — an increase in funding for intensive needs students, and a change to the area cost differential — the rate at which school districts are compensated for the increased costs they face delivering education in rural areas of the state.

Those recommend-ations, plus some, were included in Gov. Sarah Palin’s state budget presented to the Legislature for consideration during its newly shortened 90-day 25th session, from Jan. 15 to April 13, 2008. Palin’s suggested increases to the task force’s recommendations didn’t make it through the Legislature, but a bill containing the nuts and bolts of the task force’s recommendations was passed in early March and signed by Palin by the end of March.

The bill lays out increases to education funding that will be phased in over three years, so not only did districts know early what money they’d be getting for this school year, they already have an idea of what’s to come through fiscal year 2011.

In years past, state education funding often hasn’t been settled until May, leaving the Kenai school district scrambling to figure out how many employees it could afford to bring back, and how many it couldn’t.

“Prior to this legislative cycle we have been in the nth hour of the legislative session. I mean, literally, education would be amongst the last decisions made because it was the hammer,” said Melody Douglas, chief financial officer for Kenai school district.

The school district was left between a rock: telling teachers whether or not they had a job next year; and a hard place: waiting until the Legislature acted on education funding to finalize its budget.

Tim Peterson, director of human resources for KPBSD, said the district is required by statute to tell all tenured teachers whether they will have a job the next school year by March 16, and all nontenured teachers have to be told by the last day of school, generally toward the end of May. Also by statute, if the district offers an employment contract to a certified employee, it has to make good on it.

It’s a tricky situation: Having to give teachers an answer without knowing how much money the district will have, yet not wanting to offer jobs that will have to be paid even if the district doesn’t end up with as much money as it planned on.

Enter “the riff,” as Peterson calls it. The district lays off nontenured teachers to meet the deadline, then rehires as many as possible when funding is secured.

Peterson said the district tries to tell people they’re being “riffed” before the Anchorage job fair in April, so they can look for another job if they don’t want to wait around until June to hear whether theirs will be available.

The district typically hires back about 90 percent of the 30 to 40 people that get riffed, Peterson said. But that doesn’t make it a pleasant situation.

“I’m sure that was incredibly frustrating for young kids,” Peterson said, referring to the recently graduated nontenured teaches who make up the bulk of the riffed. “That’s what the riff would do to us, the nonretention rate.”

Life on the chopping block

“Incredibly frustrating” is putting it mildly for the Cox family.

Tyson and Stephanie Cox, of Soldotna, got into teaching for the same reasons many people do.

“We just both really enjoy teaching,” she said. “… I liked the idea of teaching kids, and I really liked working with kids and in schools. I think that’s how most people get started teaching, you don’t get into it to be rich. You have a love for teaching and working with kids. I think sometimes that can be taken advantage of because they know we’re here for kids. I think there’s a big responsibility put on us, ‘Well, you know, you have to do it for the kids.’”

The couple is from the central peninsula, attended Kenai Peninsula College and the University of Alaska Anchorage, graduated, and in 2001 embarked on what they thought would be long careers with the Kenai school district.

That plan was smashed their first year when Tyson was laid off. He had been a math teacher at Nikiski Elementary School funded out of Title I money — federal funds given to schools based on the number of low-income students they have. Since the money is based on enrollment numbers, which fluctuate every year, his position was even more precarious than most.

“He got cut and it was both our first year teaching,” Stephanie said. “We were like, ‘We can’t start a family like this, not knowing every single year whether we’re going to have a job or not.’”

Tyson gave up teaching and became a journeyman plumber instead.

The next year, Stephanie’s position as art teacher at Kenai Middle School was cut for lack of funding. She started teaching art classes on her own instead.

“I did my private classes thinking, ‘OK then, I won’t work for the district.’ I rolled my retirement into an IRA because I didn’t think I’d go back to the district. I said, ‘No way, I’m not doing that again.’”

It was a rude awakening to the realities of working in education in Alaska.

“I don’t think I understood about it. Going into college you don’t understand at all about how funding works. You don’t understand how it’s tied to individual teacher positions, or the whole game with the Legislature down in Juneau,” Stephanie Cox said.

Veteran teachers explain the funding process to the uninitiated and offer advice and moral support on the riff, usually from their own experience going through it. But just because it’s a communal experience, almost a rite of passage, doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Teachers are expected to have college degrees and proper certification, as well as complete student teaching where they pay to work for their credits.

“So it’s a very professional career, but yet we’re treated that way — like it’s not quite,” Cox said.

After two years teaching private classes, Cox took a job subbing in the district, which led to a full-time position teaching art at Soldotna High School.

“I liked the idea of the art class over there, teaching ceramics, full time. That’s how I got back into it,” Cox said.

Being out of the district for two years put her back at square one on the road to tenure, meaning it would take three full years of teaching before being eligible. They were uncertain years, since art teacher was a precarious position to have before the education task force readdressed education funding, which resulted in millions of dollars more for KPBSD this school year.

“It was kind of iffy if I was going to have a job. I got my pink slip each year because of lack of funding. … It was like, ‘Well, do I look for a job somewhere else, but yet I want my job, I really like it and I don’t want to leave it.’”

On the first day of school this year, the beginning of her fourth consecutive year teaching, Cox achieved tenure. She and other teachers also received a pass from the riff last spring.

RIP to riff?

“We knew how much money was coming so we were able to move more quickly on bringing back the nontenured certified positions.” Peterson said. “… This is the first year in the six I’ve been here (as HR manager) we did not do the riff.”

Escape from the riff was made possible by the Legislature’s early action on education funding.

“The first part of September of ’07 we were fairly confident we would get the task force recommendation through the legislative cycle because it was a bipartisan representation of the Legislature on that task force,” Douglas said. “Ordinarily we would not have known, if we were following past patterns, until mid-April. So we had from September to April advanced notice. So that allowed us to go to work as an administrative team with building administrators on identifying the needs and how we may use increased funding.”

Those discussions resulted in programmatic staffing, a system that allows similar-sized schools to offer similar opportunities, like extra electives at middle and high schools, more counselors at elementary, middle and high schools, reading specialists in middle schools, interventionists trained to spot and address learning problems at all school levels, and smaller class sizes in fourth through sixth grades and at small schools.

About 40 new positions were added to the district this year, Peterson said. Early funding also meant getting a jump on the hiring process. Tenured teachers got word of their jobs being continued in February, rather than March, and nontenured certified staff found out in April, Peterson said.

Some positions, like those based on grant funding and/or enrollment, were still up in the air over the summer, and some won’t be settled until enrollment numbers are finalized in October. And support staffing is typically a transient population, but by and large staffing was set far earlier than it typically has been, Peterson said.

‘100 percent of everything’

At SoHi, the district’s largest school, early funding made it possible to find teachers for difficult-to-fill positions, like home economics.

“Number one we were able to find a home ec teacher. Number two we were able to find a veteran teacher, and that was huge for our school,” said SoHi Principal Todd Syverson. “We want students to have the opportunities to look at the food industry and tourism and everything else involved in home economics.”

Language arts, foreign language and math also got new faces this year.

“Again, that forward funding allowed us to advertise early and really gave us a huge opportunity to hire some dynamite people to fill the void. And the extra money allowed us to lower class sizes in several subjects, which was critical to us,” Syverson said. “One of the functions of being able to get class sizes lower is to meet at-risk students’ needs. Last year classes were too big. I don’t care if you’re the valedictorian or if school’s hard for you, that’s not a good thing.”

Early funding cuts down on the anxiety surrounding the end of the school year and lets teachers focus on what they should be focusing on — students.

“Our teachers give 100 percent of everything,” Syverson said. “The teaching profession can be quite draining all by itself. When you’re not sure if you’re going to have a job next year, you don’t need that added pressure on people.”

Even veteran teachers not being riffed felt the effects.

“A school is very much like a family,” Syverson said. “… The emotion in the school, it’s hard on a school. It’s hard on teachers, it’s hard on the departments.”

Coming into this school year, the overriding emotion in the building was excitement.

“I think the Kenai Peninsula is feeling pretty good right now with education funding,” Cox said. “It’s a very positive year this year. Usually when we start the beginning of the school year it’s like doom and gloom. … This year I can definitely see a difference, it’s very positive and it starts the school year off good.”

Wal-Mart breaks ground, will more stores follow?

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

As gold-colored shovels ceremoniously broke ground for the new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Kenai on Monday afternoon, Kenai Mayor Pat Porter expressed her enthusiasm for the project.

“I’ve been waiting three years for this,” Porter said as she donned a blue Wal-Mart vest, complete with her name and a giant yellow smiley face on the back.

A few blocks up the Kenai Spur Highway in front of Safeway, some central peninsula residents shared her enthusiasm. Others didn’t.

“I’m happy they’re coming,” said Connie Hamilton, of Kenai. “Cheaper clothes. I don’t have to drive to Anchorage now. I can stay here.”

Hamilton said she’d be happy to see any new chain in town. “The more the merrier,” she said.

Becky Puch, of Nikiski, had mixed feelings.

“It’s good for the consumer, I guess, but it’s sure not good for the working person,” she said.

Puch said she doesn’t like some of Wal-Mart’s business practices, like how they dictate prices to suppliers, which can force them to look for cheap labor in places like China, or can put them out of business.

“I just don’t like how they treat workers,” she said. “… I’ll probably shop there but I wish there were other higher-level stores coming in.”

Target was the retailer most frequently mentioned on residents’ wish lists of new businesses to come to town. Others were Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s, and TGI Friday’s.
Or none at all.

“We’re not that big of a community where you can have a lot of chain stores,” said Jack Alexander, of Kenai. “It would be nice, but I think you’d have a larger community.”

The Alexanders lived in Anchorage for nearly 30 years. Although they liked the big city for some things, Alexander said he doesn’t want Kenai to turn into another Anchorage.
Will it? Where Wal-Mart goes, will Target and others follow?

No — at least for now, said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch.

“While I harbor some hopes in the future possibly of seeing Target down here, it’s not going to happen soon,” Koch said. “My last conversation with Target is they’re focusing on their two stores in Anchorage and the (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley. In the next three to five years, depending on their success in performance in that market, they will look at expanding to Fairbanks or Kenai.”

There are only so many pairs of socks and desk lamps one area needs, after all.

“Our peninsula has 60,000 folks. These stores cost a lot of money to build. … They’ve got to have a lot of dollars go through the front door. There comes a point where the market will be served by what’s here. That will be what Target and others are looking for.”

The rumor mill has been churning about what may be built on the spare chunk of parking lot outside the new Aspen Hotel in Kenai, or what may crop up in the vicinity of Wal-Mart.

“They’re just rumors. One day Outback’s going to come, then the Gap, then Old Navy. They’re all nice stories and thoughts, but no one’s contacted me to have any serious discussion about it,” Koch said.

Wal-Mart will have lots near the new store that could be leased or sold to other businesses. Whether any of those businesses will be newcomers to the area is anyone’s guess for now.

“My experience with Wal-Mart is information is pretty hard to come by with them,” Koch said. “They play their cards mighty close to the vest, and we may find out what they’ll do with those lots when somebody moves in and they put a sign up that says ‘Future site of somebody.’”

Jennifer Spall, Wal-Mart’s public relations spokeswoman for the Northwest, said the company plans to clear the lot and do dirt-work first, then start construction in April. The plan, weather permitting, is to have the new store open by the end of next year or spring 2010. Plans call for a roughly 200,000square-foot grocery and retail supercenter behind Kenai Chrysler Center. She said Wal-Mart would be hiring 250 to 300 sales associates for the Kenai store.

“It kinda depends if I have the time. I’ll probably go to Fred Meyer. I actually think the quality is probably better. But if I really need something quick. …I don’t really go for the cheapest, I go for what’s the quickest.”
— Cory Lehl, North Kenai

“It’s a free country. I don’t know if Safeway’s really happy about it. In this country they can go wherever they want to go, I guess. It’s business based. Isn’t competition good?”
— Jack Alexander, Kenai

“Fred Meyer needs some competition. I hope it doesn’t hurt the small businesses … but I think we need more of a selection.”
— Susan Holit, Soldotna

“I’m afraid that it’ll hurt the other small businesses in the area. At the same time it will be nice to go to the same place to get everything.”
— Carolyn Snowder, Kenai

Packing up back-to-school excitement — Soldotna graduate starts charity to provide new book bags, supplies to underprivileged students

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Deana Glick remembers the excitement of the first day of elementary school, brought on by the ritual amassing of new school supplies.

There was the smooth, glossy finish of file folders, the muted rattle of crayons in their box, the sharp smell of graphite and the never-been-opened glue sticks that didn’t yet leave goobers on everything they touch, all tucked safely away in a new backpack, organized to a level that would never be seen again during the school year to come.

“Pretty much my biggest dreams and educational goals came in elementary school, that’s where it all started for me. I was always so excited about school and getting excited the first day with brand-new stuff,” Glick said.

Now a premed student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the 20-year-old Redoubt Elementary School alumna from Soldotna was thinking earlier this year about how much her education has meant to her, and considered what it might be like for kids who weren’t as fortunate as she was.

Even something as little as not having a new backpack and school supplies would have made a difference in how much she looked forward to school.

“When I started thinking about kids who were going to go that first day empty-handed, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I don’t want anyone being discouraged because they don’t have some of the stuff the other kids have.”

Glick formed a nonprofit organization, A Backpack Can Help, this summer to make sure that didn’t happen.

“I basically got this idea, I really wanted to help out in the community and education is so important to me, so I started this nonprofit charity to encourage kids who can’t afford these things that they can still succeed and stay motivated in their education,” she said.

She started raising money earlier this summer by talking to people around town and attending the Wednesday Market at Soldotna Creek Park. She was able to form her nonprofit under the umbrella of the Bridges Community Resource Network, which serves as an organizational clearing-house for local nonprofits.

From there she approached local businesses that sell backpacks and school supplies to get discounts on what she wanted to buy, and got in with the Soldotna Rotary Club, which was “an amazing help” to the program, she said.

Soldotna Rotary’s president, John Pothast, happens to also be the principal of Redoubt Elementary.

Through that connection Glick got set up to hand out some of the 75 backpacks she purchased and stuffed with school supplies to Redoubt kids. It turns out the $1,700 she raised was enough to provide bags to students in Soldotna and Tustumena elementary schools, too.

On Friday, Glick and her mother, Darlene, crowded Pothast’s office with bags awaiting recipients to come pick them out.

There were plenty to choose from — bags sporting camouflage and superheroes for boys, pretty princess bags for girls, plus a variety of more understated colors and designs.

“This is the part I’m excited for. I can’t wait to see the smiles on all their faces,” Glick said.

A second-grade girl opted for a bag with pink swirls, although she had to be redirected from a shoulder messenger bag that was nearly as big as she was — to the same design in a smaller format.

For a boy in her grade, Spiderman won out over Batman after a brief moment of indecision.

“I think it’s outstanding,” Pothast said. “Anytime we can help any student is a good thing, particularly the kids who don’t have the means. It’s not fair that they start at that disadvantage. At least at the beginning, this helps everyone start the same way.”

Glick fit her charity work into her already busy summer, taking online classes from UAA, working four days a week at a coffee shop and working the other three days a week doing phlebotomy training at Central Peninsula Hospital. Even so, she said she plans to expand ABC Help next summer.

“It’s definitely something I want to continue on next year and the following years,” she said. “Hopefully it’ll expand to where I can help all the central peninsula elementary schools. There are so many underprivileged kids and a lot of people don’t know how many kids have nothing at all.”

After helping Soldotna kids head back to school properly supplied, it was time for Glick to turn her attention to her own back-to-school shopping.

“I haven’t even done my book buying,” she said Friday, with UAA classes starting Monday.

Shopping for herself will not be as much fun as it was shopping for the kids.

“I have all the hardcore stuff now. No fun crayons or anything like that,” she said.

For more information about ABC Help, contact Glick at To make a donation to next year’s backpack drive, send it to P.O. Box 3598 Soldotna, AK, 99669.

Cool summer — Skiers search for snow in every season

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Tony Doyle had climbed to the top of Red Mountain, and now his skis began carving down the narrow lines of snow vertically striping the mountain’s northern flanks. Nearby, Dan Delmeisser of Homer and Jack Hughes of Crested Butte, Colo., were likewise employed, bending deep into telemark turns as they cut back and forth across the snow.

This scene, in general, was not unusual in backcountry-skiing circles, where the objectives are: find a big mountain, climb to the top, pick a favorable route, then, as Doyle likes to say, “ski the steeps” to the bottom.

In one specific detail, however, this scene was not ordinary: It occurred Aug. 4 — a time when most regular skiers, even those in love with the backcountry experience, have packed away their gear for the summer.

But not Doyle, and not several of his “hardcore skier” buddies. Doyle prefers to ski in the mountains every month of the year, even August and September, when finding, much less reaching, good slopes becomes a challenge.

On Aug. 4, Doyle, 49, packed up his climbing and skiing clothes, “fat” metal-edged Atomic 175 skis, collapsible Black Diamond FlickLock poles, and gray plastic Garmont tele boots, and headed across Kachemak Bay in a water taxi with Delmeisser and Hughes.

In Jakolof Bay, they met up with a Seldovia cabbie who, for a hundred bucks, drove them in his van up the Rocky River Road to an old chromium mine near the foot of Red Mountain. From there they hiked in their ski boots until they could clip into their skis, which had been affixed with climbing skins. They ascended to reach the best snow, then geared up and headed back down.

This is par for the course for Doyle, who seems to be willing to go to practically any lengths for a good ski. Next month, he’ll likely be 4,000 to 5,000 feet up in the mountains above Kenai Lake, skiing the corn snow in a north-facing bowl and dreaming of October powder.

The owner of Creative Designers in Kenai, Doyle is accompanied on the majority of his skiing adventures — he calls them “backcountry skiing with an emphasis on big mountain” — by Craig Barnard of Cooper Landing. Barnard is known affectionately by many as “Crazy Craig” for his athletic derring-do, but Doyle prefers to call him “Chunk,” for his stout, muscular physique.

Other times, Doyle is accompanied by the likes of “Poacher,” “Sky Pilot” or “Ripper Boy” — or several others who don’t have nicknames yet.

Nicknames are important on the backcountry circuit. Doyle and Barnard and friends like to name their favorite peaks — the ones not already named or given USGS designations — and their favorite routes. Among their more recent destinations are “Peak 5,000,” “Beluga,” “Fireball,” “Centerfold” and “Crater Peak.” Generally, each name is linked to a specific geologic trait or a metaphoric appearance, something akin to finding shapes among the clouds.

At Creative Designers, images of big snowy peaks dot the walls between photographs of interior and exterior design. One panorama, perhaps 5 feet long, shows a spread of mountains along the Mills Creek drainage between the Sterling and Seward highways near Tern and Summit lakes. Doyle fondly traces with an index finger the many routes he and his friends have taken, and those he hopes to take.

On his computer are dozens of folders containing photos from his trips into the mountains: hundreds of images depicting mountain landscapes, action shots of skiing and climbing, and numerous goofy or jovial candids. It is readily apparent, as Doyle takes a visitor on a tour of these images, that his enthusiasm for the slopes is strong.

He knows when he was there, who accompanied him, what routes they took up and down, what the snow was like and what the weather was like.

He realizes his enthusiasm is not shared by everyone. August skiing, he said, “is not everybody’s cup of tea.”

“There are probably a couple of dozen hardcore skiers on the peninsula, people who wanna go big, who wanna go high,” Doyle said. “There’s not a lot of people from around here that like to go and ski these chutes with me and Craig.”

Three things likely keep many avid skiers from being year-round passionate about the sport: the extra effort required, the possibility of danger and the expense.

Part of the effort involves all the climbing before the skiing begins, but another aspect involves snow conditions, which can be difficult, depending on the time of year.

“It’s not all just good snow,” Doyle said. “Some of it’s crusty, and some of it’s wind-blown, and some of it’s breakable crust, which is the worst. But then … you’ve got good powder. And it’s not hard to get away when the powder’s good.”

As for the dangers involved, Doyle is concerned without being alarmed. “We’re pretty savvy, pretty careful,” he said. “You know there’s an element of risk in all this stuff. You wanna definitely pay attention to what you’re doing.

“I don’t like to do it by myself, and, really, a guy shouldn’t do it,” he added.

Pointing to a series of photos showing him “dusting” — taking a spill and sending up plumes of snow — and then crashing over an outcropping of rocks and dirt, he admitted he occasionally gets a little dinged-up, but hasn’t experienced any serious injuries yet.

As for the expense involved, Doyle said an investment of about $3,000 would land an interested athlete a good pair of boots, poles and skis, in addition to the clothing required and other necessary gear, such as a shovel and avalanche probe and beacon.

In the end, though, the greatest obstacle to getting into the mountains is “just getting out the door,” Doyle said. “Once we get out the door and get on the trail, then all of a sudden all the worries of our daily grind kind of fall away.

“The natural world brings us peace and solace, and in the end of it, what do you have? You have good energy.”

Doyle said he is “probably on a two-year roll” as far as consecutive months of skiing are concerned, and he has no intention of letting up. In his home he built a large map of the entire Kenai Peninsula so he can mark where he has been and determine the best ways to get where he wants to go.

“It goes on and on and on,” he said. “Always, yeah. Constantly looking for new places to go.”
In the next year or two, he hopes to begin a skiing blog, in which he hopes to interest others in backcountry adventures of their own.

Pooling business resources — King’s Inn owners invest in extensive remodeling effort

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The new pool and Jacuzzi at the King’s Inn in Kenai is as well-traveled as many of its visiting swimmers will be.

Owner Rob Gray had the equipment towed up the Alaska Highway on a trailer this summer from California. He looked into shipping rates, and kept on looking when he saw the prices.

“I had a friend down there that wanted to drive a truck up here. I told him I’d pay his gas if he’d tow this up,” Gray said.

“This is probably the first pool to come up the Alaska Highway.”

The 25-foot, in-ground pool and 17-foot hot tub are two of the most noticeable changes to the King’s Inn from the outside, since their instillation necessitated ripping out part of the front facade of the building. But they are far from the only changes.

Gray and his wife, Anne, bought the building last summer. In that year they’ve had all 52 rooms completely remodeled, adding new furniture, new carpet and losing the outdated wallpaper.

“We basically gutted the rooms and went from the dry wall out. It’s been a long, long process,” Gray said.

He said the room remodeling finished up just in time for the busy summer tourism season, which has been augmented with over 50 commercial accounts, including construction workers from the Lowe’s site next door.

With summer winding down, the hotel’s larger-scale remodeling project is kicking into high gear. The existing lounge and banquet area were torn out, along with part of the front wall of the building, so the pool and Jacuzzi could be moved in. As of Thursday the holes had been dug and the equipment was in the ground. Walls are going up to create a new exercise room and a remodeled meeting room, and a host of subcontractors will be brought in to do the associated finishing work.

Gray said he’s got all the building permits he needs and is just waiting on approval from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for approval on the pool. The DEC regulates public swimming pools in the state. He said he’s hoping to have water flowing within a month or two.

The facility will probably have some kind of access to the public — to rent out for birthday parties, for example.

“Whatever works out for what the community wants,” Gray said.

The Daily Bread restaurant that shares a wall with the pool area is not being affected by the construction and still is open for business.

Gray said the impetus behind the extensive remodeling was Kenai’s economic growth.
“Because Wal-Mart is coming in,” he said. “I know in Wasilla they added 500 new jobs to the community. They’ll probably do the same thing here. … There’s going to be a lot of people coming in to shop from the Bush areas at the Wal-Mart. We just expect to provide facilities for them, and for the community.”

Gray wanted the King’s Inn to offer something different in the area.

“Every hotel around here has a bar, but nobody has a swimming pool,” he said. “… We’re going to offer a lot more services and amenities here to the community and guests, to travelers and businesspeople.”

The Grays live in Wasilla, where they own Alaska’s Select Inn Motel. They also own apartments in Anchorage and property Outside. They moved to the state as teachers in the Bush about 20 years ago and began doing property investing about 18 years ago. They’ve been managing their properties full time now for 14 years. Out of their six boys, one is graduated and helping with the family business and another two plan to graduate college next year, one from the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University, the other to go on to study optometry. The other three are still in primary and secondary school.

“All our kids learned to swim in hotel swimming pools up in Alaska,” Gray said.

Gray said he learned of the King’s Inn being for sale through a friend who does hotel feasibility studies in the state. He thought the area’s economy looked promising enough to warrant purchasing the building, which was appraised in June 2008 at $1,723,000. Gray said he’s put about a half million dollars into renovations.

“I think it’s a pretty safe bet. With Wal-Mart going in it’s going to bring a lot of growth to the area, a lot of new jobs. And there’s a lot of commercial demand. You just have to compete and have a place nice enough to attract people,” he said.

Gray said he’s also planning to redo the exterior of the building, but probably not until next summer. In the meantime, manager Judilee Forrest and staff are hoping to keep busy showing off the new d├ęcor.

“It’s been great,” Gray said. “From the previous owners we’ve more than doubled the revenue from the summer, just with the remodeling and new ownership, and we expect it to continue to improve with the swimming pool and everything.”

Kenai Allen and Petersen store closing

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

As of Saturday, culinary connoisseurs on the central Kenai Peninsula will have one less place to buy high-end appliances and cool kitchen gadgets. The Allen and Petersen store in Kenai is closing.

Leon Barbachano, general manager for Allen and Petersen, said the decision to close was a result of the lease on their rental space expiring at the end of the month and the company’s plans to expand in other markets.

“We decided not to renew as we are purchasing a building in Wasilla and consolidating and spending our resources to remodel that,” Barbachano said.

They had the option for a five-year renewal on their lease at the highway end of the strip mall in the Safeway-Home Depot complex in Kenai, but didn’t want to commit to that long of a period.

“The Kenai store has been a good store for us, we’ve enjoyed our staff members and the public that’s purchased from us, but with the lease expiring it gave us an opportunity to decide what else we’re doing,” Barbachano said.

Allen and Petersen is buying a new building in Wasilla and plans to move its current Wasilla store into the new space after it is extensively remodeled. With the company’s efforts focused there and on its Anchorage store, it decided there weren’t enough resources to maintain the Kenai branch.

“We only have so much time and energy, and to be able to manage a major remodel at our new location would have been difficult,” Barbachano said.

The company prefers to own its own buildings, so the prospect of renting for five more years was not appealing.

“The Kenai store is a leased location. We really want to own the buildings we’re in. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to come back to Kenai at some point in time, but if we did it would be at an owned location,” Barbachano said.

The Kenai store has three full-time employees and one part-time high school helper. The employees were offered jobs at other locations.

“We offered them all positions in Anchorage and Wasilla. I don’t know yet if any of them are going to make that move. I would love to have them come with us, but I know a lot of them enjoy the lifestyle of living on the Kenai. And actually, one employee lives on the river so it would be tough to pull away from that.”

Eclectic folk — Band will mix things up for contra dancers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

With a band name like Hillbillies from Mars, a little randomness is expected.
They deliver.

“They’re very eclectic. They’re a band that can give you a lot of different looks. There’s very sort of straight-up Irish fiddle kind of stuff, and also very weird eclectic music,” said Hatton Greer, with the Kenai River Folk Dancers.

The central Kenai Peninsula contra dance organization and a group from Homer are teaming up to bring the Hillbillies from Mars in for a landing at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds on Sept. 6. The San Francisco band is making a stop in Fairbanks and was looking for other venues to add to its tour.

“They contacted us and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking to set up some more things for an Alaska trip.’ We were happy to do it because it’s nice to have national bands here.”

Greer said the band is well-known in contra circles and beyond.

“These guys are pretty accomplished musicians on several different levels,” he said. “I have heard them before, and really liked them. Definitely they’re a top-notch band.”

The Hillbillies consist of Kevin Carr, who plays fiddle, bagpipes, accordion and banjo, and contributes vocals and storytelling to the show. Ray Bierl plays fiddle, guitar and does vocals; Paul Kotapish plays mandolin, guitar and percussion; and Daniel Steinberg plays keyboards, flute and percussion.

Contra music is typically fiddle-heavy and folksy, often drawing from Irish, French Canadian, Scottish and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (generally fast fiddle-based dance music) influences, Greer said. Styles can vary depending on region, with flute, fiddle, piano and guitar common in the Northeast, and banjo and mandolin more prevalent in the South.

The Hillbillies are able live up to the eclectic flavor of their name with the wide the mix of instruments at their disposal.

According to the band’s Web site, Carr contributes a French Canadian and Irish background to the music and his storytelling, with tales from Celtic and Appalachian sources. Bierl leans more toward Appalachian and Cape Breton fiddle styles, but has a repertoire of country and cowboy songs that often find their way into Hillbillies’ concerts. Kotapish lends a more traditional appeal with his steady rhythms and mandolin and guitar work, and Steinberg adds texture to the band’s sound with his flute and piano/synthesizer music.

The band will offer music workshops for Kenai Peninsula musicians from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 6, followed by a potluck from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The performance and dance start at 7:30 p.m.

Contra is a beginner-friendly style of dancing. It’s a community dance where everyone ends up dancing with just about everyone else — think the peasant dance scene in “Titanic.” Partners aren’t needed, nor are prior experience, high levels of coordination or athleticism.

“If you can walk, you can contra dance, but you do need to get there on time,” Greer said.
Greer got into contra dancing as a freshman in college.

“The girl I was interested in invited me,” he said.

That relationship didn’t last, but his interest in contra dancing did. Which allowed him to meet Michelle Martin, of Kenai, his fiancee.

“It’s one of the few really social dances,” he said. “Most other dances are, you know, at most dancing with one other person. At a contra dance, throughout that dance you’ll probably dance with half the people in the hall. It just gives you an opportunity to dance with everybody, to interact with everybody, and it’s kind of a communal experience. The more the people around you get into it, the more you do.”

Greer is a musician himself — mandolin — and a caller for the Kenai River Folk Dancers, which meet once a month in the winter at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School. The group’s first dance of the season will be Sept. 20, with the Hillbillies event giving everyone a chance to dust off their dancing shoes, or lace them up for the first time.

The easiest dances are done early in the night, complete with instructions. Families are welcome, as long as parents keep an eye on their kids.

Admission to the Hillbillies from Mars contra dance is $15 for the workshop and $10 for the dance. Kids under 16 get in for free with adult supervision. Tent camping is available.
“It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s healthy, it’s family friendly,” Greer said. “Beginners are always welcome. Nobody cares if you screw up. It’s not like the Electric Slide or the Macarena where you have to remember lists of moves.”

For more information on the band, visit its Web site,

Making a splash — Dedication is key to success for Soldotna swimmers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

While Michael Phelps was busy breaking world records, racking up more gold medals than anyone in history and drawing increased attention to his sport at the Summer Olympics earlier this month, two swimmers from Soldotna were making waves of their own.

Olivia Bowen and Winter Heaven were in Gresham, Ore., Aug. 5 to 9 competing against about 760 other swimmers on 15 teams from 13 states in the 2008 Western Zone Swimming Championships, part of the nationwide club swimming program. The Silver Salmon swim team is one of the local branches of that program.

Bowen and Heaven were two of 20 swimmers representing Alaska at the competition. They posted some of the fastest times in the state in their age divisions to qualify for spots on the team.

But those times didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years of training and hours-long practices, demonstrating commitment that is impressive to see in teenagers — especially with practices at 8 a.m. during the summer and before 6 a.m. during school.

“These two swimmers are successful because they’re so dedicated,” said Sohail Marey, coach of the Soldotna High School and Silver Salmon swim teams. Bowen and Heaven swim for both.

Marey said the SoHi team has optional morning practices starting before 6 a.m. three days a week, and Bowen and Heaven each only missed one last year. “And that speaks to their hard work,” he said.

“In our sport it’s so competitive … the truth is it’s very, very hard to be successful at the high school level if you do not swim in the off-season,” he said.

The Silver Salmon swim program gives them the opportunity to do so, with practice from 8 to 10 a.m. during summer weekdays. “That’s a big commitment for kids, and parents to get them there,” said Barbara Bowen, Olivia’s mother. Heaven said his parents decided he should start club swimming four years ago as a physical education credit for his home schooling program.

“We’re from the Pacific Islands, and I thought they needed to know how to swim,” said his mother, Viatoa Heaven.

Heaven took to swimming like a fish to, well, water.

“I like the social aspect of it, and going to different places and competing. And I found something I’m good at,” he said.

Now a sophomore, he’s already broken state records and is on pace to demolish more. During this year’s Zone competition, Heaven broke an 11-year-old state record of 1 minute, 1.76 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly with his time of 1:00.93. In the 50 freestyle he broke a 14-year-old record of 26.18 — twice.

On his first swim of the race he tied for eighth with a 26.24. In the swim-off he shaved his time down to 25.92. And in the final race he still was under the old state record with a 25.96

“I went there with the goal of breaking those records so I knew the times I had to beat, but I wasn’t focused on that while I was swimming,” Heaven said. “I beat the other person by two-tenths in the swim-off. I was very happy with that. It exceeded my expectations.”

The swim-off win more than exceeded his mother’s expectations — it almost exceeded her ability to stay calm. She stayed home from the Oregon meet with her other kids and tracked her son’s progress online.

“I was following every race on the computer and texting Barb (Bowen),” she said. “It’s the first meet I’ve missed and it was a big one.”

With the school year starting up, Heaven is switching from club swimming to the high school team.

He wants to beat the school and state record of 50.97 in the 100 butterfly, which both happen to be held by Lucas Petersen, SoHi swim team’s assistant coach. He also hopes to qualify for Junior Nationals next year, a precursor to the Olympics.

“For me, getting faster and improving in the sport,” is his goal right now, Heaven said.
Bowen, now a sophomore at SoHi, started club swimming when she was 6, because “her mom didn’t want her drowning up here with all that water,” said Barbara Bowen, Olivia’s mother.

Swimming got off to a turbulent start, but that may be a good sign.

“Michael Phelps used to scream when his head went under water,” Viatoa Heaven said.
“She did the same thing,” Barbara Bowen said of Olivia. “She thought her eyes were going to melt.”

Not only did they not melt, they got accustomed to spending long hours in the pool. Now they’re set on getting a swimming scholarship to college when she graduates, and some goals in the meantime.

She wants to break the school records in the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley. At the Zone competition she got a third place on a relay team, and she’s previously held the state record for the 50 fly.

On one hand, Bowen swims because she enjoys it.

“You get to meet people and stuff, and the traveling’s fun. I don’t know, it’s just fun,” Bowen said.

At the same time, it’s a lot of hard work.

“I think there’s a misconception that swimming is an easy sport, it’s not,” Viatoa Heaven said.

“I think it is one of those hidden sports that most people don’t think exists in Alaska. With SoHi doing so well in football season, at times (swimming) gets overlooked, not intentionally.”

Phelps’ record-book performance at the Olympics may inspire other swimmers to take the sport as seriously as Bowen and Heaven have.

“I think people watch it now that didn’t,” Bowen said.

“It definitely brings more attention to the sport. There’s more high school swimmers joining the team, especially it being an Olympic year,” Heaven said.

Their attention will stay on the water, and on getting faster in it.

“We think that they did a great job, but they’re like, ‘eh.’ They’re never satisfied,” Viatoa Heaven said.

Event lets homesteaders catch up on old times

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Joanna Hollier, Peggy Arness and Shirley (Dennison) Henley were sitting down to one of their usual Thursday lunches back in 1996 when inspiration struck.

The three women, who had been friends since the late 1940s and had been lunching together since the early ’90s, had begun to lament that they rarely saw many of the people they homesteaded with.

They were tired of the notion that “the only time when we see each other is at funerals. When one of us dies, that’s when you see everybody,” Arness said. They sought a way to reunite area old-timers “when we weren’t feeling bad that someone had left us.”

Since they regularly shared their Thursday lunches with any old friends who happened to drop by, Hollier wondered aloud why they didn’t simply expand their operation. They could have a really big lunch and invite everybody, she said.

And so the Old-Timers Lunch was born.

With the help of Donnis Thompson and others, Arness and Hollier went immediately to work on plans to make their new idea a reality. They concocted the notion of an annual dinner, with “comfort food,” attended by as many old-time central peninsula residents as possible.

They arranged to use the Kenai Senior Citizens Center and started making lists of old-timers they wanted to attend. They also kept the “Thursday” part of their tradition, deciding on the third Thursday of August in order to get local families through the commercial fishing seasons, to slip in before hunting seasons were in full swing, and to wait, as Arness put it, for a time when the “fly-by-nights are gone and heading south.”

The result of their efforts has been a rousing success. Last week’s get-together marked the 12th anniversary of the luncheon.

By 11 a.m. Thursday, the dining area of the Kenai Senior Citizens Center was already beginning to fill with old-timers meeting and greeting each other. By the time lunch was served, more than 200 people from all over the central Kenai Peninsula were seated at more than 30 tables.

Guests chatted over a meal of turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce and iced tea, with pumpkin pie for dessert.

It has become a tradition at the luncheon to name all of those in attendance, and also all the old-timers who have died since the last time everyone got together. Arness read the first list, while Thompson read the second as the room grew increasingly quiet. Thompson’s list included 101 names this year; 95 names were on the 2007 list.

Next, Arness gave her audience clues to a “mystery guest” — somebody, she said, “who is truly an old-timer, somebody who is quiet and not in the news all the time” — and called upon her audience to guess the person’s identity. This year’s mystery guest was George Pollard of Kasilof.

The luncheon wound down just before 2 p.m., after a couple of sing-along musical selections — “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Bless America” — and then guests dispersed to the overflowing parking lot to head home.

Each year now, Hollier, Arness and Thompson seek to improve on their product. This year, special servers wearing white “We’re the Kids” aprons attended to all the guests. The servers, mostly in their 50s themselves, were all children of area old-timers.

This year’s servers included members of the Dennison, Navarre, Arness, MacLane, Johnson, Hutchings, Farnsworth, Poore and Lofstedt families.

“Everybody that comes seems to enjoy themselves,” Arness said. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Planning for next year’s luncheon has already begun, and the three women are already trying to think of ways to bring even more old friends to the table.