Year in Review

From its beginnings in the throes of a coronavirus spike to the citywide celebration of Lydia Jacoby’s historic Olympic gold win, Seward’s 2021 was nothing if not eventful. The year marked a transition from the pandemic-prompted lockdown closing out 2020 to a progressively more open state that saw the return of the city’s iconic Fourth of July Mt. Marathon race. Such events were not without their consequences, however, as the city saw a spike in the coronavirus Delta variant in the wake of the race after experiencing a virtually coronavirus-free June. What follows is a month-by-month recap of the stories that shaped 2021, offering a bird’s-eye view of what inevitably may be considered a historic year, for reasons both positive and negative.

January

After unprecedented coronavirous numbers forced remote learning for all schools in Seward at the end of 2020, Seward Elementary reopened full-time on Jan. 11, while the middle and high schools reopened part-time. The State of Alaska announced preliminary vaccine availability to anyone age 65 or over, and the state minimum wage increased from $10.19 per hour to $10.34 per hour. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Seward Marine Center celebrated its 50th anniversary as the premier research-oriented facility in Southcentral Alaska.

Fresh off her record-setting performance at the U.S. Open National Championships in San Antonio, Texas, Lydia Jacoby announced her commitment to the Texas Longhorns swimming program after graduating.

“All the schools I had chosen had great teams, good academics, good coaches and everything,” Jacoby said, “but I really just had a gut feeling even since July that it would be Texas.”

In the wake of the statewide minimum wage increase, the City Council voted to adopt a wage increase plan for city employees totaling $415,826.41, including a benefits package that featuring expanded paid time off. The plan was passed 5-2 after Council Member Ristine Casagranda voiced opposition to salary increases for employees in higher wage brackets. Assistant City Manager Stephen Sowell spoke out in the plan’s defense.

“We need to remain competitive even in those positions,” Sowell said. “We want to deliver quality for this community, and that takes attracting quality candidates, regardless of which grade they’re in.”

At the same meeting, Council voted to approve a rezoning for the site of the former Jesse Lee Home, notable as the birthplace of the Alaska state flag, then undergoing demolition. The property was rezoned from Mult-Family Residential to Park in order to meet the terms of eligibility for the controversial $1.07 million state grant funding the demolition, which stated that the land must house a memorial by June 30, 2021, or the funds would be forfeit.

“To use the money, we have to follow our own code, and our code says that a memorial needs to be in a park,” said then-Community Development Director Jackie Wilde.

Also in January, the Seward Chamber of Commerce launched its $hop Seward CARES Act fund voucher program to incentivize shopping at local businesses and nonprofits, which ran through March 31.

On Jan. 18, Rob Montgomery began his post as Seward Electric utility manager, replacing interim manager Cory Borgeson.

“The reason I was excited about the job is the opportunity to come in and engage with the community, with the people, and take the Seward Electric Department to the next level,” Montgomery told the Journal.

On Jan. 24, schools reopened full-time for all ages through grade 12. That evening the City Council voted to postpone critical repairs and upgrades to the city’s electric utility infrastructure totaling $284,656, mainly resulting from issues arising from the obsolescence of one of the city’s six generators at the Ft. Raymond power plant.

To close out the month, the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) voted to change the designation of the Moose Pass community from nonrural to rural, carrying the privilege of subsistence use priority for Moose Pass residents over other users on area federal public lands. Moose Pass had acquired its original nonrural designation in 1991, when the FSB aggregated the community with the city of Seward. The FSB abandoned the practice of community aggregation in 2017, thus opening the door for Moose Pass to avail itself of the benefits of rural designation.

On Jan. 30 state troopers arrested 54-year-old Seward Police Officer Kenneth Brockman on charges of domestic violence assault in the fourth degree after reports surfaced that Brockman allegedly used the buckle end of a belt to whip a juvenile family member over the child’s grades at school.

February

In February the State of Alaska implemented a federal mask mandate for all persons occupying airport property, which included all Alaska airports with scheduled commercial air traffic.

On Feb. 3, 37-year-old Spring Creek Corrections Officer Thomas Stoddard was arrested for the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old Seward girl and her 18-year-old girlfriend at a party in Stoddard’s home. The defendant’s wife, 42-year-old Amber Stoddard, was also arrested on two counts of misconduct involving a controlled substance for providing illegal drugs to both underage victims. Previously arrested in connection with the incident was 40-year-old registered sex offender Robert Zoellner, charged with two counts of sexual assault after reportedly abusing both victims while at the party.

Also on Feb. 3, 34-year-old Seward resident Curtis Brown was arrested for assault and misconduct involving weapons in the third degree after reportedly producing a Sundance Industries Boa model .25 caliber chrome-plated pistol and pointing it at the chest of John Willingham. According to the victim, he and two witnesses were in Brown’s room playing video games when an argument erupted between Brown and himself. Brown was charged on two felony counts.

On Feb. 4 the City Council began its review of candidates for the position of city manager vacated by Scott Meszaros in the autumn of 2020 and occupied in the interim by Harbormaster Norm Regis. Among the four candidates under consideration was Wadena, Minnesota City Administrator Janette Bower.

“It is my duty to remain neutral and to complete my work according to the established policies, procedures, municipal code, statutes and council directives,” Bower wrote in her cover letter.

Also in February, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District hired as its new Superintendent of Schools Mr. Clayton Holland, who had previously held the post of Assistant Superintendent.

On Feb. 22, the City Council elected not to renew the citywide mask mandate in place for indoor public places since the end of 2020. The renewal was defeated in a 4-2 vote, with only Council Members John Osenga and Sue McClure voting in favor.

On Feb. 23, Seward Middle School seventh graders claimed the top prize in the middle school division of the 2020-2021 Battle of the Books, a statewide reading motivation and comprehension program sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians. Emily Anger, Lucy Bamford, Maddie Haas and Makena DesErmia competed under the acronymic team name LEMMINGS (Lucy, Emily, Maddie, Makena, Intelligent Novel Group Seward) to win their division at the state level by reading ten books and answering quiz show questions about each.

On Feb. 27, JAG Industrial and Marine services completed nine days of repairs on the Columbia Boston, a 2,200-ton barge that remains the largest barge ever repaired on Alaskan soil. The work was undertaken on land owned by Sockeye Point Marine Services, which partnered with JAG to accommodate the large vessel on its land north of the JAG shipyard.

“That’s the largest barge ever pulled on this property, and to my knowledge the largest barge on airbags ever pulled in the state,” said Sockeye Point Marine Managing Partner Mark Nelson.

JAG VP and Co-Founder Tim Jagielski noted that the precedent-setting nature of the job opened the door for future contracts.

“This job being successful opens up the door to probably five or six other ones that we know of, that people were just waiting to see if we could get it up and back successfully,” he said.

March

On March 4, Seward welcomed Jennifer Pae as its first full-time finance director since April of 2020. Initially working remotely, Pae would later be forced to leave her post due to health issues before her scheduled full-time move to Seward.

Also on March 4, the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) announced a new 1,100-gallon touch pool exhibit comprising six pools and three smaller feature tanks allowing visitors close contact with several of the Center’s more sociable residents.

On March 9 it was reported that Governor Mike Dunleavy expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to anyone living or working in the State of Alaska over the age of 16. The Seward Community Health Center only offered the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which at the time were only approved for those 18 and up.

In the early hours of March 15, Seward’s Dan Seavey claimed his fifth Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, matching the standing record for most wins. Seavey crossed the Deshka Landing finish line with a time of 7 days, 14 hours, 8 minutes. The win extends the Iditarod dynasty of the Seavey family, with Dan’s father Mitch also a three-time winner, most recently in 2017.

Also on March 15, the city reported its first positive coronavirus case after a full month with no new case reports. The city would go on to log low case counts until June, when the virus virtually disappeared before re-emerging with the Delta variant in July.

On March 17 the city hosted a public meet-and-greet for then-prospective city manager Janette Bower, who had been given a city infrastructure tour earlier that day. In its next regular session on March 21, the City Council decided unanimously to advance Bower’s hiring process.

“I thought she did very well,” said Council Member John Osenga at the meeting, “and I’m looking forward to moving forward with her.”

From March 26-28, Seward played virtual host to the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Sciences Bowl, an annual quiz bowl-style marine science academic competition pitting teams of students against one another from high schools across Alaska. 2021’s overall winning school was Juneau-Douglas High School, whose first-place wins in both their oral presentation and quiz bowl scores advances the team to the National Ocean Science Bowl from May 9-16.

Also in March it was reported that Seward High student Tegan Retzer was awarded a Horatio Alger scholarship in the amount of $25,000. The scholarship was granted to students who overcame the unique challenges of the pandemic while remaining active in the community. Retzer was recognized for her volunteer work at the He Will Provide Food Bank.

April

On April 1, the City Council voted unanimously to hire Wadena, Minnesota City Administrator Janette Bower as city manager for Seward.

The first week in April also saw the unveiling of a new imaging suite at Providence Seward Medical Center (PSMC). The new suite, replacing aging equipment in use since 2003, featured state-of-the-art low-dose equipment including a new portable X-ray machine, an ultrasound machine capable of point-of-care physician use, allowing PSMC to provide imaging services which previously required a trip to Anchorage.

April also marked the 30th anniversary of Dr. Michael Moriarty practicing dentistry in Seward. Dr. Moriarty initially worked in the practice owned by Dr. Warren Huss, and in 2004 Moriarty purchased the practice after Dr. Huss retired.

At the finals of the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo, California on April 10, Lydia Jacoby earned another milestone on her road to Olympic gold, placing second behind Lilly King with a then-personal best of 1:06.38 in the 100-meter breaststroke. Jacoby’s time placed her third behind Lilly King and Annie Lazor going into Olympic trials. Long before her eventual Olympic win, Jacoby was quick to thank the community for its role in her success.

“Everyone in the community has been so supportive, and it’s just been so cool to have everyone reaching out and be excited for me and be watching for what I’m doing,” she said.

On April 12 the City Council voted unanimously to approve the sale of a 3.31 acre parcel of land on its Ft. Raymond property to the Chugachmiut Tribal Consortium for the construction of a new $18 million medical center, intended as a replacement for the long-outgrown North Star Health Clinic. The planned 15,000 square foot facility will require the creation of 28 new full-time positions to supplement the staff currently employed at North Star.

The Seward Department of Motor Vehicles ceased operation on April 15 due to the departure of all city employees trained in DMV procedures. The office would reopen to limited service later in the summer and would experience periodic closures thereafter until the replacement staff was fully trained.

On April 18 a listing barge drifted into Seward harbor under supplemental tug support. The stern port quarter of the 300’ x 300’ SeaTac Atlas appeared to be dipping into the water as the barge was escorted over the calm waters of Resurrection Bay to its place at the Seward Freight Dock. The barge made it to dock, and the cargo was safely unloaded without incident.

Bear Creek Fire Service Area firefighters responded on April 21 to a structure fire at a residence in the Eadsville area. Responding to a 1:51 p.m. call, Bear Creek was joined by firefighters from Seward and Lowell Point to extinguish the blaze by 4:49 p.m. No injuries were reported.

On April 24, the Seward Chamber of Commerce held its 2021 Community Awards Banquet honoring four individuals and organizations for their various contributions to the community. Winners included Lori Landstrom, recipient of the Service to the Community Award; Mayor Christy Terry, recipient of the Business Person of the Year Award; Elle Zernia and the Mermaid Grotto and Café, winner of the Business Site Improvement Award; and the Seward Community Health Center, represented by SCHC Executive Director Craig Ambrosiani was awarded the Board of Directors Award for its role in addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

In April it was reported that the $hop Seward CARES Act program successfully injected $60,000 into the local business economy by dispensing vouchers to shoppers, redeemable at any participating business or nonprofit. It was reported that shoppers spent more than $42,000 locally, resulting in 836 vouchers, totaling an additional $20,175 for businesses and $850 in nonprofit donations.

Also in April, Seward Middle School Social Studies Teacher Rebecca Dixon was awarded Alaska’s 2021 James Madison Memorial Fellowship. A monetary award in the amount of $24,000 accompanied the fellowship, which Dixon applied toward the cost of a Master’s Degree in History with a focus on the US Constitution. the degree would constitute her second Master’s, as she already held a graduate degree in Teaching.

May

On May 3, the Seward Community Foundation (SCF) announced having surpassed its one millionth dollar donated to area nonprofit organizations. The announcement came after the SCF awarded $71,130 during its then-current grant cycle, including funds to the ASLC, Kenai Mountains Public Media, local Boy Scouts, Independent Living Center, Moose Pass Fire Department, Qutekcak Native Tribe, Seward Arts Council, Seward Nordic Ski Association, Seward PTA, and Seward Senior Center. All contributions to the SCF are invested, with only the earnings on those donations then being allocated for grant funding.

““I can think of a hundred things that people probably don’t even realize we’ve had a part in making happen or available in our community,” said SCF President Kim Reierson. “Giving the citizens of Seward and Moose Pass a place where they can make a donation to, and know that their money is going to do something locally, that it’s going to stay here in town, and that it’s going to give year after year, is just an amazing thing.”

On May 7 the Seward First Friday Art Walk made its return after the coronavirus necessitated a hiatus for the event during 2020. The art walk’s return featured a showcase of art from the Seward Artists in Schools program in the atrium of the Seward Community Library and Museum. The addition of work from younger artists was first introduced to the event before its 2020 hiatus.

“We like to feature student artwork because it also brings younger people in, and we just like to inspire creativity in all ages, and just have a space that’s welcome to all ages,” said then-Library Director Valarie Kingsland. “A lot of times younger children aren’t always at the First Friday events. They tend to be very adult, so that was really exciting to see that, the first time that we did it.”

Also returning after a 2020 cancellation was the annual Harbor Opening and Blessing of the Fleet, May 15-16, along with the Mermaid Festival. The only component of the weekend’s festivities not making a return in 2021 was the Pirate & Mermaid Pub Crawl, as festival organizers deemed indoor gatherings still too great a risk of coronavirus transmission.

On May 24, Janette Bower assumed the role of city manager, replacing Harbormaster Norm Regis, who had filled the role as acting city manager since the departure of Scott Meszaros in 2020.

Also on May 24, the City Council, acting in its capacity as a City Board of Adjustments, approved two Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law from the May 14 appeal hearings regarding a conditional use permit (CUP) for the property at 402 Second Avenue. On April 6, the Planning & Zoning Commission had granted SeaView Community Services the initial permit to operate the property as a recovery housing facility and substance abuse treatment center, but nearby resident Carol Griswold sought to appeal the permit, citing the potential threats of “increased crime, litter including drug paraphernalia, noise, pedestrian traffic, and vehicle traffic associated with the proposed facility,” according to appeal documents.

The Council’s decision to affirm the permit also struck one of its original conditions requiring SeaView to return to the Planning & Zoning Commission for a one year review and submit quarterly reports to the Commission that address the facility’s activities. The condition was struck on the grounds that it violated the Fair Housing Act, and the amended CUP was approved unanimously.

On May 29, a 19-year-old fisherman fishing a mile out onto the flats during low tide stepped into a drop-off and drifted 100 yards into Resurrection Bay. The man was able to remove his waders and swim safely to shallow waters, where bystanders helped him ashore. The man was not wearing a personal flotation device of any kind.

June

On the morning of June 1, a large aggressive black bear stranded two hikers on the Harding Icefield Trail in the Exit Glacier area of Kenai Fjords National Park. Law enforcement rangers encountered the bear approximately 1.5 miles up the trail, where they observed the animal behaving aggressively and refusing to leave the area, even after hazing attempts by rangers. Ultimately the animal was euthanized out of concern for the safety of the hikers, who were found and escorted by park officials back to safety.

Also in June, Seward Middle and High Schools each welcomed a new principal after the retirement of Trevan Walker, who had served as principal of both schools through the 2020-2021 school year. Henry Burns replaced Walker at Seward High School, while Matt Potter took over at the middle school. Burns came to Seward from North Pole High School, and previously held a number of posts in Title 1 public schools in Florida. Potter came to Seward from Blatchley Middle School in Sitka and previously worked as a teacher in Circle.

On June 10 at 8:24 a.m., fire broke out above the 134’ x 34’ 190-ton Glacier, a vessel dry-docked in the JAG shipyard at the Seward Marine Industrial Complex. Crews using a cutting torch reportedly employed the use of fans to mitigate smoke accumulation within the vessel, which ultimately served to fan the fire and worsen the situation. By 9:17 a.m. responders had the blaze under control, and by 11:27 a.m., the incident was cleared. Seward Fire was summoned again at 3:31 p.m., when crews reported that smoke and smoldering continued to persist. Seward Fire Chief Clinton Crites performed a thorough inspection of the vessel for potential threats, advising crews to maintain a fire watch throughout the night, and the scene was cleared again by 4:35 p.m.

On June 14, the City Council voted to approve changes to utility rates for all Seward Electric customers. A major component of the changes was the establishment of a new industrial rate for the city’s three largest consumers of power: JAG, Icicle Seafoods and the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC). The new industrial rates will represent a reduction in cost for JAG and Icicle, which were both formerly charged a large general service rate. The ASLC, which remains the city’s largest consumer of electricity, will abandon the special contract it held with the city, and transition to the full industrial rate, representing an over 3.25¢-per-kilowatt hour rise in utility cost. Residential customers will see a rise in base rates equating to roughly $2 per month for an average user of 650 kW hours per month, but a corresponding decrease in the Cost of Power Adjustment (COPA) of $2 per month will offset the increased base rate, the result of the termination of a special contract between the city and the ASLC in which the Center was not being charged the full amount of the COPA for which it was responsible.

“With the SeaLife Center paying the full COPA amount, it’s going to result in a slight reduction in the COPA for all of the customers, including the residential, the commercial,” said Seward Electric Utility Director Rob Montgomery. “When they start paying the full COPA in January, the other customers will benefit from that.”

All rate changes would go into effect on Jan. 1 of 2022.

On June 15, Lydia Jacoby turned in a record-setting swim in the 100-meter breaststroke, beating out Annie Lazor for a qualifying spot in the Tokyo Olympics. Overtaking Lazor late in the race, Jacoby finished second with a new personal best time of 1:05.28, 1.10 seconds faster than her Mission Viejo time and ranking her second in the world and the eighth best 100m breaststroke swimmer of all time. Jacoby returned to Seward on June 23 for a brief visit with friends and family before leaving for Team USA Olympic training camp in Hawaii.

On June 28 the City Council voted to double council member stipends from $200 to $400 per month. Accordingly, the mayor’s monthly stipend was also doubled from $300 to $600. The resolution also included the adoption of stipends for all Planning & Zoning commissioners in the amount of $100 per month. The increases marked the first such adjustments to city government stipends in 35 years, but the raise still falls short of the previous hike. Adjusted for inflation, the $200-per-month council member pay when initially established would equate to $490 today, with the mayor’s $300 stipend the equivalent of $735 in today’s dollars. All stipend adjustments took effect on Jan. 1 of 2022.

Next Week, Part Two: Mt. Marathon Race, Olympic Gold for Jacoby, Salmon Derby and more! Part 2