Winter Carnival Grand Marshals Kate and Ben Mitchell kick off anniversary celebrations
A highlight at Saturday's Winter Carnival parade will be Grand Marshals Kate and Ben Mitchell, float-riding in their Tolman skiff. For the Mitchells, this event is the official kickoff of NOMAR's 40-year anniversary celebration. At the helm will be their son and daughter, Richard Mitchell and Jennifer Mitchell Hakla.
According to Jan Knutson, Homer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center and Community Events manager, the Mitchells were chosen as parade marshals for their decades of community service.
"They are long-time business leaders in the community. Kate has been involved with the chamber for many years, volunteering, serving on the board and especially working with Marine Trades. She and Ben continue to be really supportive of the chamber."
Coast Guard to community
Both Kate and Ben left home at 17 and joined the Coast Guard. Years later, they met and married in Seattle. "We were transferred often, treated as transients, not vested in the community — always sort of outsiders," Kate said. When their boots landed on Homer soil, however, they never left.
Debuting in the Homer business community in 1978, their enterprise started out as Mitchell's Marine Canvas and Upholstery, with one commercial sewing machine and a barrel stove in a 1958 GMC converted school bus parked in Lou's Boat Yard. A year later, the business graduated into a dirt floor Quonset, large enough to pull boats in to work on them, and changed the name to the Canvas Shop.
Two guys with a problem
"Hey, could you make me a ...?" is a frequent question Kate hears. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention at NOMAR. Even the company name sprung from a customer need.
In 1982, two Homer fishermen came to Kate asking for a smoother fish delivery system to help get better prices for their fish. They asked for bags that "no marka' da fish!" Thus the NOMAR brand name and the original NOMAR brailer bag were launched. According to the company website, "Trademarked in 1983, this bag became the Alaska standard method to deliver salmon quickly while eliminating rough handling and big net marks that old methods of delivery caused."
In another instance, when a local woman who made fishermen's jackets with rubberized front and sleeves decided to leave town, a fisherman came in, asking Kate to duplicate the garment. She adapted and improved the design and made him 18 jackets for the F/V Judy B crew. "This was our first fleece garment," said Kate. "Prior to this we did boat tops, upholstery and brailer bags." Now NOMAR's extensive line of outdoor clothing for adults and kids includes jackets, pants, winter skirts, base layers, hats, mittens and fleece boot socks.
Other products that answer specific needs are bunk bags, rifle cases, radio holsters, log totes, slush bags, net anchor bags, and two lines of made-to-last gear and travel bags.
Adding and expanding businesses
"In 1981, we bought out Louie Strutz's boat yard and began offering marine services as Homer Boat Yard," Kate said. "Dry land marine services were an unknown to the community at that time — a place to park boats, a parking lot close to the Spit, secure storage, and a place to fix up and gas up. We added services little by little."
The Mitchells sold the boat yard in 1995 after moving the sewing business to the old Proctor's Grocery building on Pioneer Avenue — NOMAR's current location — and added a boat shop the following year.
Homer Marine Trades Association
Aware of strong marine trade associations in established marine communities on the east and west coasts, the Mitchells recognized what a boost one could be to Homer's marine industry, so they were instrumental in getting it started. Homer Marine Trade Association seeks to promote the numerous marine businesses Homer has to offer and to provide and promote education opportunities leading to and furthering careers in the marine trades.
Well-trained tradesmen are important to the success of the industry, so with more and more industry jobs being created, the challenge now is to train people to fill them.
"We are working to build the skill base," said Kate. "The trades have to let school-age kids know there are jobs in the community, and to get a taste of what the job would be." To this end the association is promoting training through mentoring, scholarships, apprenticing and small classes with local marine businesses.
"Our starting these fledgling businesses that have grown into part of the now established Marine trades industry proves it can be done. We hope it encourages others."
The next 40
Looking back, the couple said, "With a sprinkling of talent and a healthy dose of guts, we nurtured that first business until it grew to 15 diverse and talented employees, numerous sewing machines and 10,000 square feet of work space. We now have a beautiful retail store where visitors and locals alike love to browse, shop and design custom items to perfectly fit their needs and a website that reaches the world."
The couple is gradually easing out of the business, turning it over to son Richard and daughter Jennifer.
"Growing up, they were unpaid labor, employees for years and now owners. It's time for them take the business forward.
"Forty years living and working in Homer, we never thought we would be such a part of the community," Kate said. "Now we're no longer newcomers, but old-timers with a story!"