Kenai Landing, Kenai Alaska

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Old cannery reborn as tourist attraction KENAI, ALASKA (AP)

USA Today 9-20-04

A pair of commercial developers are banking that they can transform an abandoned fish cannery into a tourism hub at the mouth of the Kenai River.

John Faulkner of Homer and Steve Agni of Anchorage have worked together for 20 years, most notably on Land's End Resort in Homer. They say the Kenai Landing project is among their most ambitious: reincarnating a relic of the troubled and consolidating salmon industry as a showpiece of Alaska's growing tourism business.

The pair last spring bought the old Wards Cove Packing Co. cannery with the belief that tourists would want to see a real cannery, spend a night or weekend there, and see workers clean salmon delivered fresh to the docks. They also want to offer food, music, art displays, retail shops and space for large conferences.

"We believe Kenai Landing is going to be a showcase of Alaska culture," Agni said.

The old cannery is a massive complex of breezy warehouses clad in corrugated metal, long piers decked with heavy timbers, and bunkhouses once occupied by hundreds of cannery hands and fishermen attracted by millions of migrating salmon.

Kenai Landing hosted its first visitors from early July through Labor Day. The developers plan to smooth out the rough edges to make Kenai Landing comfortable without sacrificing the character of the cannery, which Faulkner believes is its main appeal.

They figure least two more years of hard labor and many more dollars are ahead.

Agni, 50, has helped develop numerous projects in Anchorage including the Tesoro Sports Centre ice rink, the Cellular One Center for indoor soccer and other sports, and the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Spenard.

Faulkner, 43, operates the historic Van Gilder Hotel in downtown Seward.

Faulkner said he started thinking about the idea as he followed newspaper accounts of the downsizing of Wards Cove, one of Alaska's largest and oldest fish processors. In late 2002 the Seattle-based company announced it was closing its string of salmon plants because of "sustained, significant and accelerating losses."

The shutdown illustrated the decline of Alaska's salmon industry, caused chiefly by the rise of efficient, high-volume foreign fish farms that began taking over world markets in the early 1990s.

The cannery was built in 1912, then rebuilt after a fire in the early 1920s. Its last season processing fish was 1998. By that time, the cannery was operating only as a freezer plant.

Faulkner said the Kenai plant had several advantages over other shuttered canneries in remote places like Bristol Bay: It's on the road system and accessible; it fronts the Kenai River, which comes alive every summer with dipnetters and sportfishermen; and the buildings and piers were still in relatively good shape.

"If it didn't have all these ingredients, I don't think we'd have been interested in it," Faulkner said.

They bought the cannery in mid-February for about $1 million, and have spent at least $2 million since then on the first wave of renovations, Agni said. They financed the construction with a loan from Anchorage-based Northrim Bank, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, announced in July that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had given the developers a $2.75 million loan guarantee.

When the Kenai Landing opened the weekend after the Fourth of July, some bunkhouses and cottages were rented to visitors at $85 to $175 per night, and an art gallery and about 10 craft vendors occupied a long warehouse dubbed the marketplace.

A Cordova-based seafood company took salmon deliveries and processed some of the fish on site, and a new restaurant called Sockeyes opened in the building that used to house the canning line. Some antique equipment including pulleys and steamworks was left in place for diners to see.

Faulkner estimated more than 10,000 people visited Kenai Landing this summer, with perhaps 1,000 of them staying overnight. Some days the 25 rooms and the restaurant were full, giving the newly hired work crew all they could handle, he said.

Faulkner and Agni aim to lease much more space to artisans and vendors, bring in live music and other arts events, improve the salmon-processing operation to serve not only commercial fishermen but also curious tourists, and keep Kenai Landing open year-round.

Kenai isn't the only place in Alaska where developers are trying to turn an old salmon cannery into a tourist draw. In Hoonah, another former Wards Cove cannery has been remodeled to cater to cruise-ship visitors.

Faulkner said he expects Alaskans, rather than Outsiders, will provide the main business.

"Sixty percent of my business at Land's End is Alaskan," he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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