Kenai Landing, Kenai Alaska

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On banks of the Kenai, long-empty cannery hums with new activity

By McKibben Jackinsky
Homer Tribune


Artwork by Thor Evanson

Jon Faulkner and Steve Agni, owners of Land’s End Resort and the Van Gilder Hotel, envision a world of opportunity at the historical Wards Cove Packing Company, located at the mouth of the Kenai River.

With businesses in Homer and Seward, Jon Faulkner and Steve Agni have their eyes set on the central Kenai Peninsula. Namely, the nearly 100-year-old Wards Cove Packing Company near the mouth of the Kenai River.

“I love historic properties and particularly ones that have economic utility,” said Faulkner, who, with Agni, owns and operates Land’s End Resort, in Homer, and the Van Gilder Hotel, in Seward. “I don’t think anyone can look at Wards Cove and not just revel in the opportunity that’s there.”

What is there is 65 acres of land, 35 buildings and a century of history. “I can’t go anywhere without running into somebody – I’m talking up to 85 (years of age) – that has worked there, sold fish there or been associated in some positive way,” Faulkner said. “There are more positive associations with this property than you can imagine.”

The sale will be final by mid-February, “but we’re working on it now,” Faulkner said of work to transform Wards Cove into Kenai Landing by Memorial Day 2004. “We couldn’t use ‘Wards Cove’ or any string of words that contained ‘Wards Cove,’ which was unfortunate, because we would have selected that just for historical value,” Faulkner continued.

The size of the property, the existing structures and the possibilities are “almost like trying to design a self-contained community in rural Alaska,” Faulkner said. Plans call for a commercial fish processing plant with a retail outlet similar to Coal Point Trading Company. A floating dock will be available for recreational fishing, as well as a launch ramp and charter fishing businesses – salt and fresh water – operating out of the location. An anticipated 40 retailers will take advantage of the cannery’s mall-type area, as well as a restaurant, brew pub and lodging for 50.

“We’re gearing for the summer market, where people are on the move,” Faulkner said. “But our goal is to be fully operational year-round by the third year.”

The area was originally developed as a saltry in 1910, with owner Libby, McNeill and Libby eventually converting the facility into a cannery. According to records from 1912, some 36,000 cases of salmon were processed that year. Fire destroyed the original buildings in the 1920s; many of those that were reconstructed are still standing.

In 1959, Columbia River Packers Association and Wards Cove Packing Company formed a joint venture – Columbia Wards Fisheries – and purchased the cannery. Seven years later, equipment for processing fish eggs was installed. In 1970, a freezer plant was added and, before that decade was over, a cold storage and processing building was constructed.

In 1983, Wards Cove purchased Columbia River Packers’ interest and continued the canning operation for another nine years. Various parts of the plant were expanded and production lines upgraded. Expansion of the freezer plant in 1995 included the addition of five aluminum tanks that had a total holding capacity of 120,000 pounds.

“We had up to 350 employees at a time at the plant,” remembered Don Brindle, who helped build the cannery’s freezer plant, worked as the frozen production manager for seven years, and became Wards Cove Packing’s area manager in Seattle, Wash.

With the downturn of Alaska’s fishing industry, Wards Cove faced a tough decision. “Fishing unfortunately reached a point where we determined that we wouldn’t be able to buy fish and make a profit,” Brindle said. “It was a very arduous decision to shut it down, because we had long-term relationships with fishermen and store keepers. But it was a decision we had to make.”

Now, the buildings that hug Kenai River’s meandering curves are once again beginning to hum with activity. The sound means business for Kenai Landing. And it means business for the rest of the Kenai Peninsula. “I feel that having venues like this available in different communities stimulates traffic to other (communities),” Faulkner said. “I honestly believe that. That wasn’t a central strategy in our acquisition of this property ... but there’s opportunities clearly for (Kenai Landing) to build traffic to Homer and Seward, and vice versa.”

 

 

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