Like the black bears that prowl the Chugach National Forest, Cordova itself hibernates during the winter. As salmon harvests decline, non-resident fishermen leave the area, taking their earnings with them, and some businesses close their shutters until spring.
However, the Cordova Planning Department has other ideas. Their draft of an overhauled city comprehensive plan sketches a path toward a Cordova that is commercially active year-round.
“A lot of the challenges that Cordova has come from that seasonality, that influx of population that drops off in the wintertime,” City Planner Leif Stavig said. “There’s a lot of different topics that people argue about in town, but I think 99 percent of people would agree that they want to have more going on in the wintertime.”
The Cordova Comprehensive Plan is a broad summary of Cordova’s goals and aspirations — of what residents would like to change and what they’d like to preserve. Its subject matter ranges from the abstract to the technical, and it suggests policies designed to bring the actions of the city into closer agreement with the priorities of its residents.
Cordova’s new comprehensive plan was drafted following months of polling and town meetings throughout fall 2018. This polling found that, while residents were proud of Cordova’s sense of community, they were concerned about its high cost of living, its near-total dependence on the fishing industry and its lack of wintertime employment opportunities.
In response, Stavig helped draft a plan aimed at moderating the cost of living, stimulating the development of new businesses and refurbishing Cordova’s somewhat threadbare First Street, another common point of concern for residents. Although Stavig’s name is on the cover, he’s quick to point out that the ideas expressed within came from the public.
“This process gets people thinking about these issues that they talk about all the time, but don’t really think about on a deeper level than just complaining about it,” Stavig said. “This is like the anti-Facebook, in my mind. Yes, we take in the voices of a lot of people, but we get something coherent out of it.”
To retain some of the fishermen who vanish from Cordova after salmon season, the plan suggests developing wintertime fishing spots near Cordova focusing on cod, shrimp, herring, crab and halibut. In theory, if enough fishing industry workers remain in Cordova during the winter, more businesses will have adequate clientele to remain open.
“Even a couple more boats fishing in the wintertime adds some momentum, some energy to the town,” Stavig said. “Every little thing has an impact in every other part of the town. Having more people in town means you have more people buying groceries, so maybe the groceries don’t go up in price as much. If you have people eating out, the restaurants stay open. These are all the little things that come together.”
The plan also suggests steps to encourage commercial activity outside of fishing, such as opening an “incubator” where entrepreneurs whose businesses can’t afford their own offices will be able to share a common office space. An autumn job fair could also be used to keep seasonal workers from leaving town over winter. Increasing the availability of vocational education by expanding Prince William Sound Community College’s involvement at Cordova Jr./Sr. High School could also help diversify the town’s economy, the plan suggests.
While the city can take some steps to invigorate business, Stavig emphasizes that private individuals will also have to take the initiative.
“People really want to see Main Street as the hub of the community,” Stavig said. “People want the city to do a lot of things, and the city can do a lot of things. But the city can’t start up businesses on Main Street… If people want to come to the city with ideas, I, as the planner, can talk them through what they would need to do. But, in terms of actually getting that to happen, it’s up to private individuals.”
Residents surveyed by the committee weren’t just concerned about the state of business, but about the state of the business district itself. While some buildings along Cordova’s First Street are tidy and well-maintained, others display fractured window panes and blemished façades. The proposed solution is simple: encouraging business owners either to spruce up or knock down their old buildings with tax reductions, revolving loans, reduced landfill rates and other financial incentives.
Other challenges examined by the report include Cordova’s outdated zoning regulations, its shortage of affordable housing and the decline of state funding.
“It took us a long time to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” Stavig said. “It had a huge, huge impact on our town. Now we’re at this turning point… where we’re strong and we’re growing and we have to ask, what is our identity now? Hopefully our plan helps out with that. Hopefully it keeps us thinking about the future.”
The current draft of the plan is publicly available at www.cordovacompplan.com. The Planning Department has invited residents to share their suggestions at (907) 424-6220 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment forms are also available at the Cordova Center. Deadline for comment is August 31.