The 150-ton travelift and pier in Hoonah. Note the washdown pad just above the pier. Sitka wants to start with a pier that could be expanded to accommodate a 300-ton lift, and build washdown pads off to the side. Future plans also include an office and restroom. (PND Engineers)

Sitka has selected a site for a new marine haulout, but the proposed timetable for the publicly-funded project is not sitting well with some in the industry. They remain concerned about the ongoing loss of boat repair and maintenance business to other communities.

Sitka has over $8 million to spend on a marine haulout. Voters last October overwhelmingly approved withdrawing the money from the city’s permanent fund to build a pier and to buy a large travelift to pluck boats from the water.

The only thing slower than a 150-ton travelift, however, is the process of designing, engineering, permitting, and actually building a place to use it.

Juneau-based PND Engineering is doing preliminary planning for the project. At a recent meeting (4-26-23) of the Gary Paxton Industrial Park board of directors, PND representatives rolled out a timetable that aims for a 35-percent preliminary design by this fall, final design by the summer of 2024, and operations sometime in early 2025.

Local shipwright Mike Nurco thought the timeline was excessive.

“We’ve missed the ‘23 season completely,” Nurco said. “Boats are just flying to Wrangell, they’re flying to Hoonah, the (Sitka harbor) grid’s, swamped. And now we’re talking about missing ‘24. And we’re talking about missing the year ‘25. For all of these boats – that’s four harbors chock-full of boats – I would encourage everybody to somehow pick up the slack and make this happen quicker.” 

There hasn’t been a commercial haulout in Sitka since early last year, when Halibut Point Marine closed. Nurco said the run to the nearest full-service haulout in Wrangell was 28 hours for a typical fishing vessel. Hoonah, which has a haulout, but limited services, he said was around 16 or 17 hours.

Industrial park board member Chad Goeden sympathized, but stressed the importance of investing time now, which prompted a swift rebuttal from Nurco.

“I completely understand your concern,” said Goeden. “But everybody in this room has an idea of what ‘right’ is in their mind. And if we don’t take the time to get that ‘right’ from everybody, then we have regrets about having moved too quickly. And that’s my concern, because when we’re done, it’s permanent. And there’s gonna be a lot of things that we can’t go back and fix.”

“That’s right,” said Nurco, returning to the testimony table. “But that’s why we pay these guys (PND Engineering) with all their experience to do something quicker than three years away. And so there’s got to be a place in the middle. Nobody wants to rush you. But you know what, this is not rocket science…. So I do hear what you’re saying. I think that’s wise. But I think there’s a middle ground.”

That middle ground was not identified during the meeting.

The board did resolve a separate issue, however. The haulout project won’t include a public use ramp to launch smaller boats. The existing 60-foot wide gravel ramp was constructed by Northline Seafoods several years ago to haul out barges, and convert them into floating fish processors. Northline has since moved that part of its operations to Washington State, and the ramp is seeing only occasional use now. PND proposed – as one of three options – building the pier for the travelift on the site of the ramp, since the same characteristics that made it ideal for hauling out barges also favored hauling out fishing vessels: Plenty of room for adjacent washdown pads, and a relatively short run to the area where vessels will be serviced.

Board members for the Gary Paxton Industrial Park preferred Option 2 for the location of the new haulout. Although a gravel ramp is currently located there, members felt the haulout was a higher priority, and the ramp could be relocated. (PND Engineering)

Retaining the ramp, if possible, was included in the instructions – or the “charter” – given to PND Engineers, but the location is too attractive to ignore. Park director Garry White suggested that the ramp – which was free to begin with – could be relocated to another site. Municipal administrator John Leach agreed, and urged the board to focus on the core mission.

“The ramp, in my mind, although I personally would like to preserve it, that’s starting to become an add on to the project,” Leach said. “Because right now there is no public use ramp. And if we start talking about what can we do to maintain a public use ramp, that’s not in the scope of what we were doing in the first place. So I just wanted to draw everybody back to the haulout right now.”

Board member Lauren Mitchell was the most reluctant to give up the ramp, and – prior to the vote – asked other members to explain their reasons for parting with it. Chair Scott Wagner said that he saw it as the best, central location for the haulout, and the ramp could be moved.

When it finally came to the vote Mitchell, after a pause, said “I’ll let it go,” and joined the others in selecting the ramp as the preferred location for the new haulout.

PND plans five other public meetings on the project. The next will be sometime in May, when engineers present an initial concept design.