A photo of Silver Bay taken at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park on December 24, 2020. The assembly and park board have been working on a plan to get a haulout built at the park for over a year. Now a group of fishermen is looking for a solution in the interim. (KCAW/Rose)

Frustrated by delays in Sitka’ efforts to establish a public boatyard at its industrial park, a group of fishermen is proposing setting up a nonprofit to do the job themselves — at least in the short term.

The Sitka Assembly took up the issue at its meeting on December 22.

The Sitka Assembly and the industrial park board have been pushing to build a marine haulout ever since Halibut Point Marine announced it would be closing up shop on its haulout in the next couple of years.   

The city asked for proposals from the private sector last spring, but it only got two nibbles that weren’t quite what the assembly was looking for. The assembly voted to reject those offers in July, and applied for a federal BUILD grant to help fund the multi-million dollar project with public money. When that funding didn’t come through, they went back to the drawing board, and in October the assembly directed city staff to draw up a brand new RFP.

And now there is a new twist in the haulout saga: A group of local fishermen informed the assembly that it is developing plans to launch a community boatyard at the park. During public comment, Linda Behnken and Jeff Farvour spoke on behalf of the group. They said it would be an incremental step toward the city’s goals of developing a higher capacity boat yard. 

“A small group of us has decided that we need to step in and try and create an interim option for Sitka to not be at any time without a haulout and a boatyard,” Behnken said. “Our goal is to do this in a way that benefits the community, that benefits the local fleet, and that doesn’t preclude any future options of going to a higher capacity yard, but just getting something started.”

“We don’t really want to be in the long term boatyard business, we just see this as a need,” said Jeff Farvour.

Behnken is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, but the letter she submitted wasn’t on ALFA letterhead. It states that the group intends to raise and invest around a million dollars to launch the boat yard, under the umbrella of a nonprofit. They would upgrade the existing ramp to allow a self-propelled trailer to haul boats up to 55 feet in length, and would lease enough land from the city allowing around a dozen boats to be out of the water at a time. The project could be scaled up later to include a conventional marine travelift.

City administrator John Leach asked the assembly for direction: Did members want to move forward with the existing Request for Proposals, or did they want to make substantial changes to accommodate Behnken’s group’s new plan? He said he’d found the back-and-forth over the haulout RFP over the last year pretty frustrating. 

“In my previous life we would call this ‘wrong rock management,’ where somebody says ‘Go find me a rock,’ then we bring the rock,” he said. “Then when we get here to the table it’s ‘Wrong rock, go find me another rock.’ So we’re looking for that clear guidance, of what kind of rock do you want, and we’ll put it together. We thought we had it this time.” 

Member Valorie Nelson said she wanted to keep the RFP as open as possible, and  still favored a private purchase or lease. 

“My belief is the bigger the butterfly net the more butterflies we catch, and I propose and will support anything that says private ownership,” she said. “We do need to get that land into private ownership as quickly as possible because it’s a drain on city staff, it’s a drain on resources.”

And Rebecca Himschoot thought more specificity might bring the city offers closer to what they were looking for. 

“What if the butterflies are not what we want? What if they’re moths, not butterflies? I feel like we should be really clear going into it so that the bites we get, the nibbles we get, are the fish we want.” 

Member Kevin Mosher wanted to move forward with the RFP staff had developed. Members Thor Christianson and Kevin Knox both said they saw the RFP and the interim solution Behnken’s group was working on as complementary, not mutually exclusive. Christianson said though he didn’t object to leaving the private sector on the table for a potential sale, it was unlikely they’d get a nibble they’d be satisfied with. 

Due to a clerical error, the RFP in the packet wasn’t the most up-to-date version. The assembly took advantage of the hiccup to revisit the question at its first meeting in January.