Longtime Alaskan Bob Penney, a sportfishing activist and real estate developer who had close ties with some of the state’s most prominent politicians, died Tuesday at the age of 90.
Penney owned Penco Properties, a real estate brokerage company in Anchorage, but his lifelong passion was protecting the Kenai River to ensure it would host salmon for future generations, friends and family said.
“Few people realize this, if you don’t protect the habitat, if you don’t have a place for the fish to live, there’s no fish,” Penney said in a video about the river and Penney’s efforts, provided by the family Tuesday.
Penney was also a top Republican donor to leading Alaska politicians he called friends — including the late GOP Sen. Ted Stevens and, in more recent years, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski — and sometimes got entangled in their controversies.
Also, his efforts to protect the Kenai kings often put him at odds with commercial fishing interests, including a decade ago when Penney led a failed effort to ban setnet fishing in Cook Inlet.
“Bob was a titan,” the Penney family said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Everything he did was for the betterment of his family and the state of Alaska.”
His son, Henry Penney, said in an interview Wednesday that his father passed away in Indian Wells, California. Penney lived there with his wife, Jeannie, in winter, when they weren’t at their summer home along the river in Soldotna, Henry Penney said.
Penney in the 1980s founded the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which hosted a sportfishing classic that raised money for fish habitat and drew members of Congress, corporate executives and other VIPs to Alaska each summer.
Henry and others said Penney’s legacy is defined by his efforts to protect the river’s habitat, including educational outreach and building grid boardwalks that prevent fishermen from trampling on grass beds important to salmon survival.
“Today Alaska lost a strong civic leader, the Kenai River lost a fierce protector, and my family and I lost a dear friend as Bob Penney passed after 90 years of a life well lived,” Murkowski said in a social media post Tuesday.
Murkowski said Penney helped create the Resource Development Council, an industry advocacy group, and the Mayor’s Charity Ball.
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan also posted a remembrance of Penney on social media on Tuesday, saying, “Penney brought energy, passion and determination to everything he did.”
On Wednesday Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, asked for a moment of silence for Penney on the House floor.
“I’ve never had a correspondence with him when he didn’t say — he closed it with ‘remember the fish,’ ” Johnson said. “That’s what he cared about. He cared a little more about sports fishing than commercial, but that’s to be said.”
“So we lost what I believe was a great Alaskan and a good friend,” Johnson said.
Penney was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, he sold Kenai riverfront land next door to his own property to Murkowski, leading to accusations that she got a sweetheart deal at a reduced price from a family friend. Murkowski denied wrongdoing and sold the land back to Penney.
That same year, Penney appeared before a federal grand jury in a corruption case involving Sen. Ted Stevens. Charges that Stevens took excessive gifts from supporters and didn’t report them as required by federal law involved some gifts that had been provided by Penney, like a stained glass window. Stevens was found guilty but the corruption charges were later thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
In recent years, Penney was a primary contributor to the winning bids by Gov. Mike Dunleavy for two straight terms, with Penney providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.
Penney was born in Oregon shortly after the start of the Great Depression, his family said. He moved to Alaska in 1951 to manage a lumberyard in Anchorage and later sold trailers for a private company.
By the end of that decade, he’d launched his own business. Penney Trailer Sales in 1959 sold used mobile homes, and later RVs and remote construction camps amid a time of growth in Alaska, buoyed by the oil industry. Penney helped develop a tract of land east of downtown Anchorage that includes the Northway Mall.
“Capitalizing on opportunities in the real estate market, Mr. Penney expanded to real estate investments and development through various partnerships and joint ventures,” the statement from his family said.
His development portfolio included residential projects, mobile home parks, commercial and retail properties in several western states and Mexico, his family said.
Penney is survived by his wife, four grown children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, his family said.