By Hannah Heimbuch
After a public hearing and second reading at Monday’s Homer City Council meeting, Mayor Beth Wythe broke a tie vote to approve a $31,000 appropriation for marketing Homer in the book Alaska: North to the Future.
“From my perspective, it’s a different level of advertisement than we would be able to get locally,” Wythe said. “It is a strong economic option.”
The ordinance names the Alaska Legislature as the sponsoring entity for the title put out by Wyndham Publications, Inc. The Washington state-based publisher has collaborated with the Legislature on four previous volumes.
The City of Homer’s $31,000 bill will reportedly garner the cosmic hamlet an eight-page color spread with photos, and the only spot featuring an Alaska municipality.
The book is touted as a marketing tool, with an ability to reach an audience of potential economic interests that can’t or isn’t being reached through other forms of advertising and promotion.
Copies are provided to U.S. Senate and House members, according to the ordinance statement, and distributed to delegates and State officials traveling around the U.S. and abroad.
During the public hearing, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Lavrakas questioned the spending.
“One of the things that puzzles me,” Lavrakas said, “is that it’s rare that I’ve known of a publisher…when they come to do a story, to ask the subject of the story to pay for the exposure.”
While he supports the city’s effort to find avenues for marketing Homer that the Chamber is unable to access, he was skeptical about the overall effectiveness and distribution size of the publication.
“I’m just trying to see if this is the best way for the city to use their money,” he said.
Lavrakas also noted concern for Section 2 of the ordinance, which stated that the administration was “encouraged to seek contributions and matching funds from other economic development and marketing entities within the City.”
“I’m wondering what those entities might be,” Lavrakas said.
While support for the ordinance was initially strong — Mayor Wythe cited general agreement from the council at the March 10 meeting — council members began to reconsider that support following public testimony that questioned the wisdom of the expenditure.
Councilwoman Francie Roberts said she had been considering some of the same questions Lavrakas brought up, and supported holding off on approval to answer some of those questions.
Bryan Zak and Gus Van Dyke both voiced the possibility that the funds would be better spent locally.
But it’s a little late for that, according to Mayor Wythe.
“This very same set of six people provided the distinct nod to Walt to go ahead and proceed with accepting this offer,” Wythe said, adding that it was not a prudent option to pull out of the deal now.
Ken Kastner pointed out in earlier public testimony that the amount was close to the $39,000 cut from Pratt Museum and Homer Foundation funding during November budget decisions. And while additional revenues may have arrived since that time, he said, the project should be low on the fiscal priority list.
“Suddenly $31,000 seems like an expense you can make,” Kastner said. “But it’s not an expense I would make.”
Lavrakas told council that he had called the offices of Alaska’s congressional delegates, looking for their thoughts on the effectiveness of these publications. Neither Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office or Sen. Mark Begich’s staff had heard of them, he said.
This was odd, Wythe added later, as Sen. Murkowski penned the forward for Volume IV. The author of that volume’s text happens to be Gail McIver Phillips, a former Homer City Councilwoman who also served as a Representative and Speaker of the House.
Despite these connections, there was still doubt from both the public and council member discussion on whether to move forward.
“I’m experiencing buyer’s remorse in this project,” Zak said. “I think we did explain that we’d all have to vote for it. And they knew that, and if we don’t all vote for it, that’s okay.”
In fact only half of the council voted in favor of the ordinance — including Roberts, Barb Howard and David Lewis. Zak, Beau Burgess and Van Dyke voted against it.
Before the vote Howard also pointed to the council’s previous support of the ordinance, and asked that council members not be swayed by Lavrakas’s questions.
“We have essentially a competitor coming to try and talk us out of it,” Howard said.
Multiple public testimonies described the difficulty faced by city employees trying to adjust to dramatic changes in the cost of their healthcare premiums. Jo Earls pointed out that while $31,000 isn’t nearly enough to alleviate the high cost of that care, the expenditure seems unrealistic at a time when fiscal struggle is being felt so acutely in families supported by city jobs.
“Why did the city council give the city manager a go ahead when you hadn’t voted?” Earls asked.
This expenditure was not a casual thought, Wythe added in her closing comments. It was a carefully considered and wise marketing opportunity intended to attract investment in Homer’s future, she said, beyond what tourism offers.
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