Photo taken in the former Sitka Community Hospital hallway- the building is currently being leased by SEARHC to house long-term care. (KCAW/Kwong)

The city is moving forward with plans to sell the former Sitka Community Hospital building. And the public may get a chance to weigh in during the municipal election next October. But in order for that to happen, the city has to move quickly.

Last fall, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium approached the city, interested in purchasing the former Sitka Community Hospital Building. In 2019, SEARHC bought the city-owned hospital business, and opted to lease the building where it continues to house long-term care. But now Sitka’s primary health provider is growing, with a $300 million dollar hospital expansion project planned over the next five years, and they need the space.

The Sitka Assembly signaled its interest in selling the hospital building late last year, but it wasn’t clear whether it would be an outright sale to SEARHC or if the property would be put out for a competitive bid. When the assembly met on Tuesday (12-13-20), City Administrator John Leach said SEARHC submitted a letter requesting the sale be pursued through the typical competitive bid process, and the city could begin drafting a Request for Proposals (RFP). But they’d need to act fast. 

“This is an aggressive timeline,” he said. “We have to move this fast to make it to a regular election, if it were so decided that we wanted to hold a public advisory vote on it.”

Leach asked if he could hire outside support to craft a RFP for the hospital sale. They’d also need funds for assessments and building inspections. Leach anticipated preparing for the sale would cost the city around $25,000 dollars. Once staff drafts the RFP, they’ll seek bidders for 60 days, and begin sale  negotiations with a finalist by June.

City attorney Brian Hanson said that, should the sale go to an advisory vote, the assembly would decide who to sell the property to among the potential bidders, then ‘stay’ the sale, and put it up for a vote on the Municipal Election Ballot in October. Then the assembly can use the vote to aid in their final decision. The public vote is non-binding, and the assembly can decide to sell the property even if the majority of the public votes against it.

Member Kevin Mosher said he preferred the sale not go to an advisory vote. Member Valorie Nelson said she hoped it would. No other assembly members gave their opinion on whether the property sale should go on October’s ballot. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz agreed that the timeline was aggressive, and hoped everyone could stick to it.

“It sounds as if there are some assembly members who do want to put this out to a vote, and I feel that meeting that timeline is very important,” he said. “I don’t feel the need to call a special election to this which would add potentially thousands of dollars to the cost of the sale.”
Since the hospital sale was a ‘discussion’ item, the assembly did not take public comment. The assembly will likely consider funding for the sale process at its next regular meeting. It must decide whether to put the sale up for a vote in the October municipal election before the deadline at the end of July.

Haulout RFP approval delayed again:

The assembly postponed voting on a Request For Proposals to build a marine haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park a second time on Tuesday.

The assembly and industrial park board began working on a marine haulout plan when Halibut Point Marine announced it would be closing its haulout sometime in 2021. The city issued an RFP for a haulout project last year. It got two offers but the assembly rejected both and went back to the drawing board to seek federal funding, which it ultimately didn’t receive. 

City staff released the new RFP draft in December but delayed a vote. When the group reviewed the document again on Tuesday, members had some changes in mind based on suggestions from the haulout task force.  They passed an amendment to shorten the required advertising period from 90 to 60 days (5-2 vote with Eisenbeisz and Nelson opposed) and removed language requiring a 20-year washdown pad and a passenger safety float as part of the bid, making the items “aspirational” instead (6-1 with Nelson opposed).

Several fishermen spoke in support of the changes, but some continued to call for the assembly to remove language in the RFP that allowed for a private sale. Jeff Farvour is part of an effort to put forth an interim haulout option led by the fishing fleet. 

“If the property is sold to a developer and they no longer wish to operate a boat yard, then they will sell it and we will be again without a boatyard,” he said. “There are very few options of location for a boatyard and the ones that might be available would be much more capital intensive to develop. We certainly don’t want to find ourselves in that situation.”

The current RFP specifies that developers are responsible to fully fund the project. An amendment to add language offering city start-up funding failed. And an amendment to remove all property sale language from the document and focus the RFP on long term leases also failed. Member Crystal Duncan said she preferred leaving the sale language in to keep options open.

“We don’t want to lose the land, but we also want the committee to give value to those who are willing to do a long-term lease, but that would be in a different section [of the RFP],” she said.

“I’m just not seeing the drawback of leaving it as is and allowing everybody to come forward with their best proposals, so that the committee could then rate it and figure out what’s going to be the best option for us.” 

But when it came to the final vote on the RFP, the assembly was split on whether to move ahead, mostly over uncertainty about how much preference to give long-term lease applicants on the score sheet. Some stressed the urgency of the project with the fishing season just months away. As Rebecca Himschoot recalled someone saying at a previous meeting, it was time to, “put the turkey in the oven.”

Member Valorie Nelson, who voted against all of the amendments, was in favor of delaying two more weeks.

“We’re not baking turkeys and we’re not baking hams. We want to make sure it’s done right. I think two more weeks is not going to kill the project. You’re getting more word out there to people,” she said. “I have said it in the past, I’m not in favor of wordsmithing, and retooling and rewriting contracts at this table.”

In other business the assembly appointed nine people to a new Climate Action Task Force. It approved several lease agreements and liquor license renewals. And several assembly members commented on the recent violent insurrection at Capitol Hill.