The Sitka Assembly is testing the waters on a proposal a local business made to build the city a marine haulout in exchange for 17 acres of city-owned land, valued at around $2 million dollars. Before moving forward with the transfer, the city will hold two work sessions to solicit more public input.

Earlier this year, Halibut Point Marine owner Chris McGraw announced they would close their company’s boat yard in 2021, the only commercial travelift in town where Sitka’s fleet can haul vessels out for maintenance and repairs.

 Now he has offered to build a haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park in exchange for a 17 acre lot just north of the business’s private cruise ship terminal.

When the assembly met on Tuesday (12/23/19) it considered that proposal, and whether or not to put the “land swap” out to bid, a requirement when city property is being sold or transferred. But assembly member Kevin Knox said he needed more time and information, and made a motion to postpone the item.

“By the way the item is worded it suggests to the public, and to us too, that we’re looking to either proceed or vote down on an RFP process, I’m not ready to do that,” he said.

The motion unanimously failed, and the assembly went on to discuss the project, and what a competitive bidding process, or “Request for Proposal” (RFP) would look like. Steven Eisenbeisz had some concerns about the process being too narrow. 

“I am extremely opposed to any RFP that sets such tight parameters where the outcome is already known. We’re then limiting ourselves to any other potential bids that could come out there,” he said. “But I am thankful to Halibut Point Marine to start this conversation.”  

Assembly member Valorie Nelson said she thought there should be two separate requests for bids- one for the marine haulout and one for the 17 acres of land. 

“A haulout is very important, but it’s also very important that the voters have a say on the disposal of property, and I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people in the cove area that are concerned,” she said.   

During public comment, McGraw said the most recent cost estimates on a new haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park were close to $6 million.

“I thought how could they get a haulout without spending money. The 17 acres that’s adjacent to our property is an undeveloped waterfront piece- that I felt could be utilized for expanding shore excursions,” he said.

“The intent for the property would be minimal development. Basically some adventure based tours, trails- and one access road that would go onto the beach and some type of structure on the beach,” he continued. “From the roadway, visually you wouldn’t notice any change to the property.”

During public comment, the consensus was that Sitka’s fishing fleet needs a marine haulout, but it needs to be done right, and several who testified said that meant more time and input from all stakeholders.

And for some, it meant separating the lot from the haulout in the bidding process.

These are two very important complex issues- selling land and providing the haulout facility for the health of our fleets and our community,” said commercial fisherman Eric Jordan. “Don’t mix them together.”

But assembly member Thor Christianson said they should at least keep inching forward with the plan

“There’s no other money at this juncture that’s been identified to get anything like this done. While I appreciate some of the people’s concerns- if we don’t figure out some way to put out an RFP and possibly accept it, I don’t think we’re gonna get a haulout built ever.” 

Ultimately the assembly gave interim administrator Hugh Bevan a few directives: schedule two work sessions- one on the proposed haulout and one on the 17 acre lot, before developing two different RFPs.

Read more coverage of the 12-23-19 Sitka Assembly meeting here