By Hannah Heimbuch
New restrooms at two Pioneer Avenue locations mark just a few of the capital projects the City of Homer is wrapping up this month. These and several other projects were funded by Alaska’s cruise ship passenger tax, allocated to individual communities through the capital budget and the Alaska Department of Transportation.
These projects aim to improve the shore-side experience of cruise visitors, as well as the vessels they arrive on. That’s not to say Homer residents won’t benefit from the upgrades, however, which span from the end of the Homer Spit to downtown.
Newly completed projects include bathroom facilities at strategic locations for pedestrians, both downtown and on the Spit. There is one at WKFL park on east Pioneer, another across from Bartlett Street on the west end, and a third at the End of the Road Park near Land’s End Resort. An additional rest area near the deep water dock is a much needed step up from previous facilities, said Deputy Harbor Master Matt Clark.
“We used to have one outhouse to accommodate all the passengers and crew that were departing,” Clark said. Now there is a restroom, a guard shack, and a covered staging area for people waiting for buses. It’s also paved, improving access for those with limited mobility.
Improving the quality of the visitor experience is one part of keeping cruise ships and their revenue pulling into the Homer port, Clark said. Cruise ship arrivals in Kachemak Bay have been down in recent years. Homer had more than 10 cruise stops in the years this funding was allocated, though just one tied up to the deep water dock in 2013. That trend is hopefully on the way out, said Clark, with five ships thus far on the 2014 schedule.
The funds for these particular projects were allocated in two separate packages, said Katie Koester, City of Homer Community and Economic Development Coordinator. The Palin Administration approved $1.5 million for Homer’s spit trails expansions. The other projects – including deep water dock upgrades and public restrooms – came through a later $6 million package.
“The six million dollars was awarded a few years ago when the Legislature was really pushing emerging ports, and building infrastructure through emerging ports,” Koester said.
Approved projects must pass the litmus test of being beneficial to the visitor and the vessel, Koester said, as the funding comes from a head tax on individual passengers.
“When the Legislature worked on inserting the funding into the capital budget, they were really aware of how the project would impact passengers,” she said.
Fender replacements on the face of the deep water dock are part of this port upgrade, improving protection for large vessels pulling up to the dock. In Homer this means cruise ships, petroleum barges, supply boats, ocean-going tugs, military vessels, research ships, floating seafood processors and emergency docking for Alaska Marine Highway system vessels.
“The original fender construction was a timber fendering system,” Clark said. “The timbers were substandard for the class of vessels that we’re accommodating.” They were replaced by a more durable steel-framed, plastic fender system, which since its completion in early summer has proved to be a significant improvement, he said.
“It’s been great,” Clark said. “(Before) we experienced broken timbers frequently, so there was a lot of maintenance required to keep those fenders in a useful state.”
Spit trail improvements include protection to existing trail, and extensions to increase pedestrian access on the Spit. Construction has begun on the extension, with a finish date expected in the coming spring. This will extend the popular trail from the Fishing Lagoon to the end of the spit and around the harbor. The new walkway will include lookouts and interpretive signage.
Replacement of the aging boardwalk skirting the harbor is nearly done, and will be complete once the handrails are installed this month. Shore protection along the harbor mouth and extended trail is already complete, with rip rap put in this summer to prevent erosion.
These improvements and prioritizing of pedestrian access is an important move for Homer as a port and a community, Clark said. These trail and facility upgrades on the spit will aid anyone trying to access spit recreation and services on foot, he said, boosting visitor and local experience alike.
“As far as public access it’s just wonderful,” Clark said. “Suddenly we have real, dedicated access for the purpose of recreation. A way for the general public to enjoy the port facility with dedicated access and interpretive signs. I think this is going to be a defining moment in the history of the port and harbor.”
Another update included in the City of Homer capital project report is the natural gas line from Anchor Point, which is now flowing with one mile left to construct in distribution phase one. Construction on phase two, distribution to the outer city, will begin as weather permits in the spring. City buildings are converting to gas systems this month.
In the sewer and water department, the 40-year-old Redwood water tank was removed this fall, and new screens were installed at the sewer treatment plant. Phase two of the Kachemak Drive water and sewer project was completed this summer, with lines installed from East End Road down Kachemak Drive 8,200 feet.
A new pavilion at Karen Hornaday Park was completed this month, as well as new pedestrian safety work in Old Town, and boardwalk replacement on Beluga Slough. Road improvements round out the fall report.
More than half of the City of Homer’s 2013 construction budget was funded by state grants at 56 percent. User fees and property owners covered another 25 percent, 12 percent came in through city funding, and 7 percent was federal grant funded.
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