Friday, September 30, 2011

Palmer council candidates share views on parks, spending and more

Post photo by Rindi White
One Palmer resident took an equal-opportunity approach to candidate support.

Mike Chmielewski, Linda Combs and Brad Hanson are running for two seats on the Palmer City Council. Election day, Oct. 4, is fast approaching. We contacted the candidates by email to seek their views on issues facing the city. Here are our five questions, followed by the responses they sent. 

The city's $1.1 million upgrade of the MTA Events Center was necessary to move the Alaska Avalanche junior hockey team to Palmer from Wasilla. Was the city's investment of tax dollars justified?
MIKE: Yes. I supported the concept when originally presented. This was a case where the city was able to see an opportunity for the expansion of a much-used hockey facility. The obligation however, remains for a continuing oversight of our contractual relationship with users. We must ensure that we have staff up to the task of continuing negotiation and oversight.
LINDA:  The initial investment and any ongoing expenditures do seem to be rather large given the City of Palmer's limited funding options in today's economic climate but I do feel they are justified because of the potential of profitability just like the Palmer Golf Course and because it adds a great deal to the quality of life for the citizens of Palmer. Palmer did not have a multi-use facility in the past and the MTA Events Center is addressing that need.           
BRAD: Upgrading the MTA Events Center is in the best interest of the City of Palmer.  When the building was opened in 2005 there were still improvements that were necessary to maximize the functionality of the building. With this latest round of upgrades it will become a fully functioning, multi-purpose facility.  The Avalanche is a by-product of increasing this functionality. Additionally, when the MTA Events Center was originally constructed, the city leveraged our resources with many other organizations and built a cost-effective facility. In this second phase of construction we are using this same philosophy. Over $975,000 came from state grants and from other sources. $565,000 came in the form of grants from the state, $50,000 came from the Mat-Su Health Foundation, $60,000 came from the Avalanche and $300,000 was for the naming rights for the facility. The city investment was justified when you consider for a couple hundred thousand dollars we get an organization that provides quality entertainment, and increases the economic vitality of the community, while the community has a facility that will long serve as a center of social, recreational and economic activity at very little cost to its residents.

A decision on the hotly contested measure over banning smoking in public places in Palmer has been postponed until Oct. 11, after the city election. Where do you stand on this issue?
MIKE: I support the ordinance. Over the last two years I have carefully studied the issue. From a public health standpoint there is no question in my mind that second-hand smoke is harmful. From an economic standpoint there is overwhelming evidence that places that have gone smoke free are not harmed, with perhaps one exception: declining sales from tobacco products. From a freedom of choice perspective, I believe limiting smoking falls within the category of other laws such as speed limits.
LINDA: I am conflicted on this issue due in no small part because of the conversations I have had with dozens of citizens, many of whom are business owners, who feel that the ordinance is in fact an example of too much governmental intrusion. In the past decade the majority of Palmer businesses have voluntarily chosen to become smoke free and there has been no need for a city ordinance. With a citizen's petition before the City Council containing 675 names opposing the ordinance I feel that we have to listen to these voices as well as to the ones who are in favor no matter how emotional the issue. At this time either some more changes need to made to the ordinance or it needs to be set aside and the issue placed on a ballot.
BRAD: Undecided at this time.

All three council candidates have been active in Palmer city government, Palmer-area nonprofits, or both. What keeps bringing you back, even though public service and volunteerism can be demanding and, sometimes, thankless?
MIKE: I'm not so much coming back as rearranging my focus. For me, public service is more a lifestyle choice that manifests in a variety of ways. I've been fortunate enough to have been elected to positions. I've also volunteered and worked with nonprofits. My experience suggests that after about three to six years I need to shift focus. Sometimes I make that decision, sometimes voters do. What I'm most interested in seeing is where any skills I have accumulated might be put to good use. I've also learned that whatever I contribute goes into such a mix of others’ efforts that suggesting I am responsible overstates the situation. Bottom line is that we all play a role in making a community.
LINDA: One of the greatest things about Palmer is that dozens of its citizens genuinely and deeply care enough about Palmer to volunteer their time and efforts to continue to improve their community. I am proud to be counted amongst those who continue to do so.
BRAD: (See the answer to the following question) 

In 50 words or fewer, what philosophy do you live by (or plan to use) when making decisions at the council table?
MIKE: Learn from others. Ask questions. Withhold judgment. Trust the process. When in doubt, amend. Actions speak louder than words. Opinions are everywhere. Facts are like diamonds, hard to find but extremely valuable.
LINDA: I would like very much to be the voice of the citizens of Palmer drawing on my 25 years of ongoing involvement in the community at many levels. I am truly passionate about Palmer and believe with all my being that it is an excellent city to live and work in. I believe that an elected official must listen to the community and combine that information with common sense and experience to make the best choices possible for majority of the citizens.
BRAD: I have served the City for approximately 20 years. My motive has always been to increase the quality of life for the citizens of Palmer, and make this the best place in Alaska to live.  Foremost, government is to serve the citizens.  Further, I believe that we must be fiscally responsible and maintain an efficient, affordable form of government.  Those are the principals I believe in.  

The city council recently reviewed its new parks and open space plan, which recommends connecting trails to improve walkability and updating old playground equipment, among other suggestions. In a time of tight budgets, how important is it to spend city money on recreation improvements? How much would you spend and where?
MIKE: I believe Palmer must walk its talk as a walkable, bike-able city. We are very close to providing a connecting trails system and should pursue as a high priority being an active partner with non-profit groups in the soliciting of grant funds and careful allocation of city funds. The completion of the downtown railroad right of way project creating a park and trail system from the river in the north to the Alaska State Fair property would be at the top of my list.
LINDA: Parks, trails, open spaces and playgrounds are very important to the makeup of a community's quality of life factors. In particular, I would like to see connections made to all of them that lends itself to continuing the "walkability" factor as well as for bicycles since many of our citizens enjoy the current trails in Palmer. As for the budget process, we must first fund all of the necessary functions of the city, such as police and fire protection and public works and then make every effort to use any funds available to continue to update, maintain and improve the existing parks and trails. At this time I am unable to attach a dollar amount to that process. 
BRAD: The park and trails plan is not completed yet.  The city is currently reviewing the needs assessment portion of the plan.  This plan is a result of a grant we received from the Mat-Su Health Foundation for $50,000.  It will guide necessary maintenance and improvements to our existing parks and trail improvements. No money has been spent implementing the plan. I am willing to spend money on parks and trails if it makes fiscal sense at the time. I do believe however that park and trail improvements have spurred a renewed sense of community pride within the city.
Over the 14 years I have been on the city council my priorities have always been on infrastructure, police and fire, while maintaining an efficient and affordable government. I have always been an advocate for parks and trail improvments, which I feel have been greatly enhanced during my time in office. Revenue to the city is at historical highs, the city council must continue to monitor expenses so that City Council can continue to reinvest the citizen’s money in public improvements that increase the quality of life in Palmer.

Have a question for the candidates? Post it in the comments and we'll let the candidates know so they can answer. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

City looks for teen-friendly places to play

Photo by Ron Wilmot
The City of Palmer recently posted this sign at the A-Moose-Ment Park 
By Zaz Hollander
Post reporter
The teenage invasion is familiar to anybody who's taken their kids to Palmer's A-Moose-Ment Park.
There are rambunctious boys climbing the castle walls and doing flips across the wood chips as part of their Parkour routines while toddlers waddle past. You can't miss the throng of teens turning the air blue with cigarette smoke and language under the covered pavilion. Or the girls in the swings until an adult warns them to watch their mouths, and they decide to go someplace else.

Thing is, where do they go?
That's a question the City of Palmer is trying to answer.
Finding a place for teenagers and young adults to play is part of the city's ongoing Parks, Trails and Recreational Fields Master Plan.
The city will hold a community meeting from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. today (Thursday, Sept. 29) and Friday at the city fire training center.
The process involves a lot more than youth facilities. Topics range from trails and river access to playing fields, which are in short supply. To review the city's planning efforts so far, go  here. 

But one of the needs that surfaced during a consultant's survey earlier this year was a teen-friendly park to shoot hoops or pedal around a pump track, said Palmer's community development director, Sandra Garley. A pump track, by the way, is a place where bicyclists cruise around a course filled with berms and rollers. It's not a BMX track, insists Ed Kessler, a 26-year-old who's hoping to work with the city on a pump track for Palmer. The goal is to not pedal, and the activity ends up being a great core workout, said Kessler, who co-owns a trail construction company. 
Given his business, Kessler has a clear interest in getting a pump track built in Palmer. He also comes armed with a striking statistic: about a third of Palmer residents are under 18, according to the last U.S. Census. "That's a large demographic that's not being covered in our recreation areas," he said.
What form any new teen-friendly park will take has yet to be decided, Garley said. The city does have a skate park, though it's drawn some criticism for design and access problems.

Garley said she did hear from Kessler, who proposed putting a pump track next to the A-Moose-Ment Park. But, she said, the city is trying to keep kids and teens separated.
A sign now informs users that the park is for children only -- little ones, in the under-12 range.
While police say they don't field many calls about trouble at the park, the city does get some complaints - "my kid doesn't feel comfortable swinging around the big kids," that sort of thing - that prompted officials to take action.  There have also been cases of vandalism, including problems with the port-a-potties, though city officials say they can't pin the blame on teens.
"It's just a continual struggle  for the littler kids and their moms when the teenagers come in," Garley said. "It's not overt. Nobody got beat up by a teenager. They have louder music, they have rowdier games. The park really was designed for littler ones."

Let us know what you think: Does Palmer need another teen hang-out? And where should it go?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

MTA upgrade slips a bit on delay, seat scarcity

Post photo by Melodie Wright
A $1 million upgrade is underway at the MTA Events Center. 
By Zaz Hollander
Post reporter

If you build it, they will come. 

But what if you don’t have enough seats? 

Last year, the City of Palmer lured the Alaska Avalanche to town from Wasilla’s Curtis C. Menard II Memorial Ice Arena, a roomy venue where the junior hockey team served as an anchor tenant.

The move came with a cost to Palmer, too: city officials here are spending $1.1 million to upgrade the always busy ice rink, the MTA Events Center.
To accommodate the team, the MTA center needed to meet the standards of the North American Hockey League, the body that oversees the Avalanche and 27 other teams. In exchange for $50,000 from the team over a four-year period, city officials agreed to expand the arena with new locker rooms and equipment storage. They also promised to expand seating to hold at least 1,500 spectators. Some $400,000 from the Legislature helped pay for the project. 

Work got under way earlier this year. Then things started to slip.

Word came in late August that delivery delays for structural steel would push the project's completion back to Feb. 1. The Avalanche start their season in a few weeks. For a second year, the team will play without real locker rooms, instead changing in a trailer out back. 

It's also clear, however, that even when the project is done the Avalanche won’t have enough seats to meet the league requirement. Right now, the MTA center has about 800 seats. Once the upgrade is finished, city officials say the center will have about 1,160 seats. The design of the building doesn’t allow for more - and never did. 

But Avalanche owner Mark Lee never told league officials about the seating shortage. The league didn’t find out until this reporter called them Monday.

“One of the conditions of the move was getting the building up to that standard,” said the league’s director of communications, Alex Kyrias. “The league office has not been notified officially by anybody of that standard not being able to be met. Other than that, I’m not sure what to tell you.”

Kyrias said any request for a variance to the seating rule would probably have to be reviewed not only by the league but by USA Hockey, ice hockey's national governing body. He couldn't say what, if any, sanctions the Avalanche might face.

Lee, trying to build a following for his hockey team in a tough market, was less than happy to hear about that phone call.

“Thanks very much,” he said.

When asked about any plans to contact the league, Lee said, “I don’t really think it’s any of your business.”

Told that the business of the Avalanche is the business of the City of Palmer, Lee said he would have no comment.

The city has said it could be possible to add another 400 seats though that would take a whole other construction project and a new addition to the north side of the building. On Tuesday night, the city council unanimously approved changes to the city's agreement with the Avalanche. Among the changes: the city promised to provide at least 1,100 seats in the arena, with a commitment to pursue grant funding for 1,500 in the future. Lee told the council he was OK with the changes. He's been very complimentary of the city's desire to work with this team.

This week, city crews were busy installing wall-mounted brackets for television monitors. Fencing in the upper mezzanine of the arena will give the Avalanche secure storage, public works director Tom Cohenour said.  The city also bought a used washer and dryer and installed plumbing and electric in a utility room so the team can have a working laundry.

City council member Brad Hanson, a longtime hockey and football coach, was instrumental in the construction of the ice arena. Hanson said before Tuesday's meeting that the upgrades at the MTA Events Center are about more than the Avalanche. Hanson said new restrooms will be accessible to soccer players outside. Mayor DeLena Johnson is hoping to hold Palmer High School's graduation in the arena; right now it's slated for the Menard in Wasilla.

It's Mark Lee's responsibility to work with the league on seating, both said.

Hanson, though, said he wanted the story to be less about conflict and more about the good things the arena brings to Palmer.

"This is a good thing for the City of Palmer and the community of Palmer to have a facility like this," he said. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

How this will work

Responses to our survey are steadily climbing! Thanks for getting out the word that we exist, and taking the time to shape our coverage.

And now - a few housekeeping items to file away. 

The Palmer Post will post regular news stories on Wednesdays. Our event calendar will be updated every Thursday and we'd love to see some guest posts here Fridays. The topics are wide open - recreation, politics, opinion, nonprofits. You are all welcome. Our only request:  you avoid using this blog to promote your business. We'll have buttons for that in the future.

This is just a start. The beauty of a blog is the flexibility to post whenever something newsworthy happens. The only deadlines are our own. So if you hear/see/experience an event that MUST be shared outside of that timeframe, let us know. If we have the time (we're all gainfully employed, overscheduled parents) we'll track it down. If we're swamped, we'll invite you to give it a whirl. After all, it's your story idea. We'll be there to help you whip it into shape.

Zaz is working on our debut story about the MTA (Palmer) ice arena expansion and how a million-dollar upgrade that helped lure the Alaska Avalanche junior hockey team from Wasilla is leaving the team in the lurch this season. It doesn't meet National American Hockey League requirements -- and it was the Post that just broke that news to the league. She's also discovered the Amoosement Park's ban on teens. Okay, it's more an insistence that older kids go elsewhere. Worry not, Palmer youth: the city is trying to find you a place to play. Can you say "pump track?"

See you Wednesday!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why we're hosting a Palmer news blog and the Get Out The Word Giveaway

Our mission: We want to provide a Web-only local news source that spotlights all things Palmer -- events, government, schools, recreation and business. We are the only media outlet with such a strong Palmer focus.

The Palmer Post strives to give readers a street-level view of what’s happening around town, from new businesses opening their doors to the old-fashioned fun of Colony Christmas, from investigations at city hall and school news to restaurant reviews and Hatcher Pass hikes.

The Post was founded by three journalists with many years of experience and a desire to see the news of our hometown reported with clarity, fairness and insight. In order to make this blog the best it can be, we'd love your feedback and hope you'll partner with us on this journey.

We're starting off by offering a drawing for a $20 coffee card to the spot of your choice when you help us Get Out The Word that we exist! How can you help, you ask? Several ways, and each way earns you drawing points. Scroll down (WAY down) to fill out the form for:

+1 follow us
+2 fill out the survey to your right
+3 blog, FB or tweet about this contest and paste the URL 

Drawing date is Oct. 28.

Rindi White

Melodie Wright
Zaz Hollander