In its heyday, Wards Cove operated like a community, bustling with hundreds of people who worked, ate and lived at the cannery on the Kenai River.
It closed in 1999, its 35 buildings abandoned like others along the once economically vibrant stretch of riverfront in Kenai. But all that could change this summer.
Two business partners hope to bring the site back to life. Steve Agni and Jon Faulkner plan to buy the nearly 100-year old facility from Wards Cove Packing Co. and turn it into a fisherman’s destination.
"What is central to this project is that we recreate the town," Agni said. "Wards Cove at the height of its production was a small town."
Agni and Faulkner are no strangers to the visitor industry in Alaska. Both have experience in buying and operating lodging and retail properties, including Land's End in Homer and the Van Gilder Hotel in Seward.
The sale of the site is to close on or before Feb. 13. Agni and Faulkner are obtaining the permits they need to begin work on the site.
On Wednesday, the two came before the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission for approval of a conditional use permit. The commission voted unamimously to approve the permit.
"I am very happy to see an abandoned facility on the waterfront be rejuvenated, especially with the historic aspect we do have," said commissioner Barry Eldridge.
Agni and Faulkner have ambitious plans for the sprawling site, which they have tentatively named Kenai Landing.
"One of the most difficult things about this project is scaling it to reality," Faulkner said.
Fish processing will continue at the site, thought not to the capacity it wonce did. Faulkner said he and Agni hope to bring in a value-added microprocessor company that will process both commercial- and sport-caught fish and operate a retaiol component where they sell fish products over the counter.
"It is in our financial interest to maintain processing at some level," Agni said.
They also want to reinstate dock facilities on the Kenai River. Agni said they hope to install floating docks and a boat launch ramp into the river. Other river-related activities that are envisioned for the site are guided sportfishing and perhaps a water taxi operation similar to what exists in Kachemak Bay.
"The ability to enjoy the river and get to the river is of course important ot he site," Agni said.
Agni and Faulkner have plans for horseback riding, a ropes course and climbing wall. A main portion of the activities will be related to youth camps that Agni and Faulkner plan to establish at the site.
The availability of arts and entertainment are central to the plans for Kenai Landing. The promenade area of the site is planned to be developed into something similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle.
Faulkner said they plan to have 30 to 50 small retail spaces to lease to vendors. Agni said in tome they hope to cultivate a professional exchange where artists from across the state and the Lower 48 come to stay at the site and create their art in studio space as well as sell it at the promenade.
There will be a stage for bands to perform as well as plans for building a theater. Faulkner said he hopes to eventually have some kind of entertainment going on at least four or five nights a week.
Lodging also will be available at Kenai Landing, including an RV park, midlevel hotel rooms with private baths and more historic, limited service rooms.
Food will be available in a buffet-style, limited service venue as well as a brew pub restaurant. Faulkner said they plan to apply for a liquor license and attract a brewer to operate at the site.
Agni and Faulkner have a three-year plan for getting Kenai Landing up and running. It will employ between 25 and 50 people and operate seasonally at first, but some services like processing may eventually operate year-round.