On Wednesday (04-25-18), the U.S. Coast Guard announced that Sitka will be receiving one of six new Fast Response Cutters. The new boat will be capable of search and rescue and bring 25-30 Coast Guard families to town.
All of this is big news for Sitka’s economy, but the Coast Guard will have to address its housing shortage before they arrive. “It’s going to result in safer waters for Sitkans, more kids in our schools, and more infrastructure development. It’s fantastic news. I can’t wait for this boat to get here,” said Mayor Matthew Hunter.
A few years ago, the Coast Guard began looking for ways to recapitalize it’s fleet. There was talk of downsizing and consolidating boats in just a few communities. Senator Dan Sullivan, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, didn’t like that. He, along with local mayors, pushed for a more robust presence across coastal Alaska.
Last week, Sullivan got what he wanted. In a letter, Coast Guard Commandment Admiral Paul F. Zukunkft announced that after completing a feasibility study and reaching out to local communities, USCG decided to spread six of the new Fast Response Cutters across four communities – Kodiak, Seward, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Two smaller patrol boats would be homeported in Petersburg and in Juneau.
“We think this is a big win for the state, for Southeast, and for all the communities that to be quite honest were concerned about losing Coast Guard cutters and assets,” Sullivan said to KCAW last week.
And it’s a big win for Sitka. While the rest of Southeast is getting their fast patrol boats replaced, Sitka is getting one for the very first time. The new generation of ships are 154-feet long (as opposed to 110-feet), with room for 15 crew members, and will expand the Coast Guard’s presence in Sitka significantly.
If you’re wondering, “Why did Sitka get chosen?,” just ask Mayor Matthew Hunter.
“Why does Sitka have an air station? Why do we have a buoy tender? And why did the navy choose Sitka during WWII as a location to put one of the three air stations? It’s on the outside of Southeast Alaska,” Hunter said. “It’s central in Southeast Alaska. It’s a perfect location for a Coast Guard presence because they can have access to open ocean or inside waters within a few hours of Sitka.”
Hunter began meeting with Coast Guard admirals on this issue years ago. In vetting which communities would get boats, the Coast Guard’s biggest concern about Sitka’s candidacy involved housing. Where would these new families leave? Current Coast Guard housing is often over-capacity and families often rent units in town.
Hunter said the Coast Guard will need to build additional housing, but that may require municipal help finding the land.
“I expressed my personal support. I felt the Assembly would probably support finding some municipal land somewhere to possibly make available to build additional housing if necessary,” Hunter said. There’s also state land on Japonski Island the Coast Guard could lease.
The Coast Guard has been appropriated $51.5 million in the FY18 government budget to fund housing and shore-side infrastructure projects to accommodate the new vessels and their crew. A statement from Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office said that money “will support current and future Coast Guard assets in Alaska, such as these FRCs.” Murkowski is a member of the Homeland Securities Appropriations Committee and also advocated for Fast Response Cutter funding to be spread across Alaska.
Sitka was redesignated as a Coast Guard city in 2017. A fixture on the waterfront and in the skies, the Coast Guard operates Air Station Sitka and a buoy tender. The Cutter Maple sailed south for maintenance last year. Its replacement, the Cutter Kukui, will arrive this year with the same crew aboard.
As a public safety hub, Sitka is also home to the Alaska State Trooper Academy. Hunter hopes citizens embrace enhanced Coastie presence as well.
“I hope people don’t perceive it as a negative presence. I know down south where it’s almost all law enforcement, where they’re looking for drugs and stopping vessels all the time, that people don’t have the the love for the Coast Guard that Sitka does,” Hunter said.
The Fast Response Cutters are slated to arrive in 2023.