Many of you may remember that two weeks ago I expressed concern about Kodiak’s shrinking population in a column headlined “What can we do to stop the bleeding?”
It has turned out to be, by far, the piece that has engaged the most readers in the life of my new column. I have had readers as far away as Oregon and Missouri share their thoughts about the piece, and the challenges we face. Closer to home, I have had follow-up conversations with any number of people, and across multiple formats.
I’ll be sharing some of their ideas in this column, which this week is designed to take “Stop the Bleeding” a little bit further and end with a call to action for those who might want to share their ideas about ways to turn the course of Kodiak’s future.
My original column focused on the effects of a declining population, at least some of the reasons we find ourselves in such a situation, and what it means when fewer people try to fund Kodiak Island’s ever-aging infrastructure. I also wrote about the need to expand our economy beyond fisheries and the military if we are going to provide an economic future for our sons and daughters.
That last part is where I want to pick up in today’s column, with a focus on one of the possibilities — tourism.
The economic beauty of tourism is that it brings in other people’s money and turns it into jobs for Kodiak residents. And, when we get past COVID, people will be more than willing to spend on travel. Nationwide, domestic and international travelers spent $1.1 trillion on U.S. travel in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.
Since no place can be home to every travel experience, successful tourism starts with an identifiable brand that allows travel writers and the Google algorithm to find us and show potential visitors the way here. Most of us, for instance, would not have to search for which Alaska town carries the tagline “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.”
It’s Homer. And because we know it’s Homer, that town has done it right.
When I moved here last year, Aimee Williams, the executive director of Discover Kodiak, told me about a potential slogan for Kodiak: “Brown-bear Viewing Capital of the World.” This week, Williams said that the branding project is on what she calls a “temporary pause” due to COVID, but it is still moving forward. The first sign of progress is likely to be a welcome sign with the brown bear wording placed at Dead Man’s Curve.
Of course, branding isn’t the only challenge facing Kodiak’s tourism business.
Adequate accommodation and infrastructure is another. If we want hunters, fishermen and other wildlife and nature enthusiasts to bring the family and stay close to town (where they are likely to spend more money), we have to provide them with places to stay, eat and shop, at a minimum.
Dr. Keith Frederick, a Missouri orthopedic surgeon and former member of the Missouri House of Representatives who is in love with Kodiak, thinks he has an accommodation solution, and it’s vacation rentals. Owners of houses in both the city and the borough are allowed to make these short-term rental arrangements, and I recently saw more than 40 properties when scanning Kodiak for VRBO or Airbnb properties.
But Frederick is thinking of luxury vacation homes, the kind he is considering building in Cliff Point Estates. He said he thinks our current statutes are “vague and in some aspects confusing.” After reading my first piece on “Stopping the Bleeding,” Frederick wrote a thoughtful response focusing on vacation rentals as the accommodation solution, and then we had a most interesting phone call. Because of space limitations, I haven’t published his column, but I am doing my best to represent his viewpoint in this column.
That doesn’t mean I always agree, but like anyone else, his is a voice that deserves to be heard.
Frederick said he helped draft legislation in Missouri that allowed for what he called “sensible, but not over-burdensome, regulations” on vacation home rentals. Since then, the economic boost to Missouri, Frederick said, has been more than $300 million a year.
Some of that comes in the form of taxes on the short-term rentals, but most, he said, is money that visiting tourists pump into local businesses when entire families make the trip with dad on his golf outing or fishing trip. The wives and kids need things to do while dad’s out doing his thing, and Branson, Missouri, has been more than willing to accommodate, Frederick said.
Of course, the last thing most Kodiak residents would want to do is turn our island into Branson. Trust me. I’ve been there several times, until I stopped going because of how overly crowded and commercialized it has become.
But please don’t read what I’m not saying: This isn’t a Branson vs. Kodiak piece, or Kodiak vs. anyone, for that matter. Tourism could be a way — but just one of many ways — to help move Kodiak forward in a way that works for the residents of Kodiak by providing jobs and a future for the next generation.
The aspect that is most appealing to me about Kodiak and tourism is that we already are doing some of this, and have people with a lot of the skills needed to do the jobs that tourism does and will demand. If we wanted to go bigger, we would need construction workers to build houses or hotels, restaurants and retailers. We will need cleaning crews, chefs and promotional experts, as well as boats, boat captains and boat repair facilities for pleasure seekers. This also could be a great opportunity for retailers and our arts community, in all its forms.
I would love to hear what you think.
Would you be interested in gathering, either by Zoom or in person, to discuss some of the challenges facing Kodiak as we attempt to “Stop the Bleeding”? I am putting together a diverse group of Kodiak residents to discuss everything from tourism and education to housing and the workforce.
We would meet at times and dates that would be convenient for as many participants as possible. If you would like to know more about this group, which is being formed exclusively by the Kodiak Daily Mirror, please send me an email, or call me. My contact information is included below.
Kevin Bumgarner is publisher of the Kodiak Daily Mirror print edition and kodiakdailymirror.com. He and his wife, Melanie, have three grown kids and a beagle named Sadie. They moved from Florida to Kodiak during the summer of the 2020 COVID pandemic. He can be reached at email@example.com