A long-sought revitalization of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Ketchikan is officially underway. The project aims to give the NOAA ship Fairweather a permanent home.
Local, state and federal officials plunged gold-painted shovels into two long, narrow wooden boxes filled with dirt Tuesday morning.
The ceremonial groundbreaking marks the beginning of work on an $18.7 million project. There’ll be a new office building, utility upgrades — and, most importantly, a floating pier to accommodate the NOAA research vessel Fairweather and its 50-plus crew.
NOAA’s Rear Admiral Nancy Hann says the facility will support fisheries research, hydrographic surveys — and the local economy.
“By revitalizing this facility, we can bring a steady flow of officers, our professional mariners, our logistical support specialists and our scientists to the city, creating a hub for NOAA’s maritime operations in the region,” Hann said.
The project has long been a priority for local and state officials. As industrial-scale logging slowed around the turn of the 21st century, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens used his position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee to require NOAA to homeport the Fairweather in Ketchikan.
The agency purchased a dock and some oceanfront property in an industrial area south of downtown Ketchikan. But in 2008, the agency determined the dock couldn’t be repaired and it was condemned.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, a longtime advocate of the project, credits Ketchikan’s elected leaders with keeping the pressure on.
“You know, this is a story, what we’re seeing right now, of first, relentless advocacy and a community, Ketchikan — all its leaders, its tribal leaders — who would not take no for an answer, who refused to say, ‘We’re going to give up this ship,’ which by law is supposed to be homeported here,” Sullivan said.
He pointed to the efforts of state Sen. Bert Stedman, who redirected some federal money to Ketchikan’s borough to help pay for the project. The Sitka Republican says he’s pushing for more federal spending in Ketchikan.
“We are actually talking about the second phase of this expansion, right after we get the ribbon cut,” Stedman said with a chuckle. “We’ll be working with Sen. Sullivan and NOAA, hopefully for expanded assets.”
Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves, whose agency oversees NOAA, says discussions aren’t yet underway for a second phase of its Ketchikan port project. But he says he’s open to finding more ways for the Biden administration to grow infrastructure investment in Ketchikan.
“The Commerce Department is focused on finding ways to grow economic development in this community and other parts of the region. So we’re open to having whatever conversations the senator and others would like to have about ways that we can drive that economic opportunity,” he said.
The new NOAA facility will be built by Glennallen-based regional Native corporation Ahtna. Construction is scheduled to wrap up by December 2022.