HERC building: lost cause or new hope for Homer
• City council debates solution ahead for ridding city of financial burden
By Naomi Klouda
How to continue funding the Boys and Girls Club’s home at the old Homer middle school building, now referred to as the HERC, continues to worry the Homer City Council.
Renovations of the 60-year-old building was deemed cost prohibitive after an engineer’s study last fall. It would cost the same amount to fix the structure as to tear it down and build a new one, a report by Klauder and Company Architects concluded in December. The cost estimate that came back after a building review was more than $10 million. The council’s discussion came on the heels of a rejected Community Block Grant request for $150,000.
But it’s decision time. Not just a few people are impatient for a conclusion to discussions that urge the council to create a community center of the building and avow a secure future instead of the threatened orphaning of the Homer Boys and Girls Club.
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda Homer Flex High School student Brittany Sparks introduced the idea of reducing the voting age to 16 at the Homer City Council meeting on Monday.
“The council is sending out confusing and sometimes contradictory messages about its intentions (related to the HERC),” City Manager Walt Wrede wrote in a memo to the council. “The administration probably is as well. The purpose of this memo is to chart a course of action and get the council on a path that leads to a decision.”
Homer Mayor Beth Wythe predicts a future of dwindling state and federal funds, leaving little wiggle room for fixing up such an expensive structure from tax payer dollars. The mayor has repeatedly warned the building’s upkeep is beyond the city’s means.
“All the money to run that school comes out of the pockets of the community. Even if someone were to give us $5 million dollars, we still would not have the money to operate the building,” she told fellow council members at Monday’s session. “How do we deal with the HERC building, so we can stop having this discussion and move along to other pressing business?”
Councilmember David Lewis suggested putting the question to a vote on the October ballot. By designating tax dollars, an annual fund could be established. “The people who want it will vote for it and those who don’t won’t,” he said.
On the other hand, powerful friends are members of the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Clubs board of directors. That’s Alaska House Speaker Mike Chenault, Sen. Peter Micciche and Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. Why not get them involved?
A borough service area designated tax fund may be the way to go, said Kelly Cooper, also on the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Club board. That process requires a petition with a specified number of signatures to qualify for a ballot proposition. It also would take community education, she said, and may involve a dedicated umbrella that involves other nonprofits such as shared service area fundings for the Pratt Museum, the Homer Hockey Rink and the Homer Public Library as well as the Boys and Girls Club.
That many nonprofits could be a confusing “nightmare,” said Council Member Barbara Howard. She suggested that since the board members are influential politicians, the city needs to ask them for help. “But first we need to decide if we want to move ahead.”
The advantage is that a service area designation would gain more buy-in by voters if it includes other nonprofits like the hockey rink, library and museum, Cooper said. These other groups scramble for funding every year.
“The goal is to get the HERC operable and to have money to maintain and repair it or to build a new one. Everyone in the community wants these services, but they’ve said loud and clear that they don’t want the city to spend their money on this,” Cooper said. “So now, people need to sign the petition and say this is important to us.”
The Kenai Boys and Girls’ board hasn’t made a decision yet on what to do, but want to approach the Legislature and the borough assembly for help with the necessary repairs, Cooper said, since it was a borough building that was gifted to the City of Homer.
Part of what makes the building problematic for bringing up to code is asbestos. But, as builder Larry Smith pointed out, new methods for haz-mat mitigation now include building a new wall to enclose asbestos, not the expensive work of tearing it out. Such buildings were built extra strong to protect school children, he said.
Robert Highland, testifying to the council, pointed out that the building is among a class of structures built from 1948 to the early 1950s on the Kenai Peninsula. The other schools are still in use: Kenai Elementary, Soldotna Elementary, Tustemena Elementary and Chapman School at Anchor Point.
Letters from the public also flooded into the council. Big Brothers-Big Sisters wants to rent space in the HERC, as does the Alaska Center for Coastal Studies and HoWL Outdoor Recreation. Mike Illg, director of the Community Recreation Program, also schedules courses in the HERC and has advocated for a community center there. All of these groups are urging the council to make a decision.
A former student at the school, Mossy Kilcher, wrote to urge the council to “fix it up, recycle and reuse” the building rather than throwing it away.
In the same “we can’t afford it” mood, Mayor Beth Wythe made a resolution to terminate any discussion of creating a Kachemak Drive Path for bikers and walkers. An engineering study came back with the news that “construction would be prohibitively expensive due to the topography and terrain and that bridges, retaining walls and slope stabilization measures would be required.”
But Councilman David Lewis successfully argued for a postponement of the resolution in order to give a committee more time to formulate a plan. Karen Hornaday Park was rebuilt entirely by volunteers and donated materials, several people testified. A plan is afloat to bring volunteers to Alaska for working vacations under the guidance of Dave Brann, who has completed trail work as a volunteer on Russia’s 1,250 mile Lake Baikal Trail.
In other business:
• Homer Flex High School student Brittany Sparks surprised the city council in a request to let 16-year-olds vote in city elections. She came armed with information about other municipalities that made, or are considering, the move.
“I am asking for support because I believe this will help our town,” Sparks said. “Most 16 year olds already have jobs, pay taxes and are responsible for the safety of others while we drive. The percentage of local voters has gone down over the years, and if the voting age is changed, I’m positive the teenagers could bring those numbers back up.”
City Councilman Beau Burgess said the City of Homer has to follow state voting laws. He recommended asking for support from Rep. Paul Seaton or Sen. Peter Micciche, and promised to help progress the idea if it is made possible for the city to do so.
“Would they be willing to serve on the city council?” Councilmember Howard asked.
“I’m not sure a 16 year old would have the maturity to do that,” Sparks replied.