Seldovia Village Tribe hopes to beef up Alaska ferry port

By Naomi Klouda
Homer, Alaska (AP) June 2010

The newest ferry in Kachemak Bay – the M/V Kachemak Voyager – arrived at the Homer Port and Harbor on May 21 sparkling in new blue and white paint, fresh from its factory in Bellingham, Wash.

Parked at the JJ float, where the Seldovia Village Tribe owners plan to build a ramp after June 30, the ferry will now be in summer operation through Sept. 7. The tribe plans on a $900,000 ramp as an economic development feature for the Homer port that can be used by others as well.

For now, the ferry will serve the Seldovia-Homer route, with possible future plans to link travel for Port Graham and Nanwalek, said Sarah Richardson, director of marketing and public relations for SVT. However, the first step, she explained, is to make sure the ferry can operate successfully.

The ferry’s presence offers new opportunities for residents of Seldovia for summer employment in Homer, opens travel options for residents who need access to shopping and medical appointments in Homer and provides economic possibilities for Bay businesses hoping to connect. It is also a chance for the tribe to launch an earnest campaign to market the ancient village that has seen succeeding occupations of Dena’ina, Alutiiq, Russian, Norwegian and American innovations across the centuries.

Visitors generally fall in love with the tranquility of Seldovia. However, a recent analysis by the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council comparing 2008 and 2009 found that tourism in Seldovia had fallen by 61 percent. The overall State of Alaska estimate for that same time period was a 20-percent decrease.

“This relates to economic development, and working with Seldovia to see what they need and what will work for them,” Richardson said. “They said the problem is ‘access, access, access.”’

Richardson said the primary mission of the Kachemak Bay Ferry is to facilitate economic development opportunities in Seldovia.

“The schedule was designed to give residents and travelers the most convenient access to both sides of the Bay as possible,” she said. “Current operators may look at the project and see it as having the potential to take away their business. As a tribe, what we are trying to do is not take the whole pie, but to grow the pie so that everybody has a bigger slice.”

Since this is a summer operation that doesn’t feature the car-carrying capacity of the Tustumena, it isn’t seen as a competitor to the state ferry system, Richardson said. Another assurance for competitors is to know that “people don’t come to Alaska to ride a ferry,” she added. “They come to visit a place; in this case, Seldovia.”

Last summer, SVT installed a permanent exhibition depicting the culture and history of the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, Aleut and Sugpiaq peoples who inhabited the area for millennia. Designed by McLaren and Associates, the exhibit at the SVT Museum tells of the origins and the traditional and contemporary subsistence activities of the Native tribes that call the area home. It also speaks of the later Russian influence.

A new Seldovia Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Guide is made available to all travelers aboard the Voyager, and lists more than 100 businesses. The guide includes businesses that currently offer transportation between the historic village and Homer. Having the publication available on the Voyager indicates SVT’s willingness to take a leadership role marketing the village, not just its own ferry, pointed out Seldovia Bay Ferry Sales Manager Peggy Keesecker.

“Much of what appeals to folks is what is not here (in Seldovia); no lines, no traffic, no rushing and no noise. It is a fabulous place to visit if you are searching for those intangibles and want to slow down, sit in the sun, paddle a kayak, hike in the woods or treat yourself to an ice cream,” the guide reads. Complete listings of events and a walking tour guide accompany the publication.

The crossing takes 45 minutes, with the first two trips out of Homer each day extended to one hour and 15 minutes. The extended voyage allows travelers opportunity to see Gull Island rookery and the scenic Eldridge Passage, where they can catch a glimpse of sea otters, whales and other marine life.