Fairweather

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrographic survey vessel Fairweather motors north past Saxman before refueling at Petro Marine Services on Sept. 25, 2020 in the Tongass Narrows. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday announced an $18.7 million contract to renovate its Ketchikan dock facility to allow the research vessel Fairweather to homeport in Ketchikan, a project that has been in the works for nearly 20 years.

The project will include the construction of a new office building, a “large floating pier, steel access trestle, and updated power and water utility systems for servicing the Fairweather and other visiting ships,” according to a press release from Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan on Wednesday morning.

The project will be completed by Alaska-based Ahtna Infrastructure and Technologies LLC. Work on the project is expected to conclude by the end of 2022.

A flurry of press releases from Republican lawmakers announced the news on Wednesday morning.

The project was the product of cooperative advocacy and legislative efforts by federal, state and local officials, including Sen. Sullivan, state legislators including Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, and city and borough staff including Borough Mayor Rodney Dial.

Stedman said Sullivan had worked hard on the project for years. Sullivan and Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed worked together to add language to an appropriations act in December that secured $13 million for the project.

“Sen. Sullivan, from his position in the previous administration, used a lot of political leveraging to encourage NOAA to do what they were supposed to do 20 years ago,” Stedman said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Stedman helped get the borough $7.5 million in state grant funds for the project in 2012, from which the borough transferred about $7 million to NOAA last April “for the agency to take over the project and build the dock,” according to a Wednesday morning press release from Stedman.

Dial and borough staff have advocated for the vessel to be homeported in Ketchikan for years, including on several of the borough’s annual advocacy trips to Washington, D.C.

Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz said Wednesday’s announcement was an “excellent example of how federal, state, local governments can work together … over a long period of time to finally bring a real positive outcome for, in this case, the community of Ketchikan.”

He noted that he had written several letters over the years urging action on the homeporting of the Fairweather, even going as far back as the Obama administration. Fellow Southeast Alaska Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, was involved with advocacy on the issue, too, he said.

The Fairweather, a hydrographic survey vessel commissioned in 1968, is named after Mount Fairweather, the tallest peak in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. It was deactivated in 1989, then reactivated in 2004.

Sen. Ted Stevens said the reactivation would "bring a much-needed capability to the tremendous survey backlog in Alaska waters,” according to an NOAA website for the ship.

Stevens and Alaska’s congressional delegation were able to pass an appropriations bill in late 2001 that directed the NOAA to homeport the Fairweather in Ketchikan. But in 2008, the dock facility in Ketchikan was condemned, and the Fairweather was relocated to Newport, Oregon.

All of the lawmakers who spoke with the Daily News were excited by the economic implications of the news. Ortiz said the amount of money alone invested in the project made it “a much-needed shot in the arm” for Ketchikan’s economy, to say nothing of the longer-term maintenance and personnel jobs that would be stationed here.

Dial agreed.

“It really represents hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions into our economy every year for many sectors,” Dial said in a Wednesday phone interview. “A vessel that size requires maintenance, and we're going to be arguing that it should be done at our local shipyard. Also, … (there’s) going to be employee payroll and all of that circulating through our economy. So we're just real excited about it.”

Sullivan said the benefits of the facility would persist even after the Fairweather is retired.

“This is going to be a robust … port facility that’s going to outlast the Fairweather. That’s a pretty old ship. So importantly, it's going to be able to support future vessels: … in my view, future Coast Guard, even future U.S. Navy vessels,” he said.

His press release on Wednesday said the project would also help to “secure America’s economic and national security interests in the Arctic.”

"Having more capabilities for that kind of deployment and the ability to have communities that can support American Coast Guard or Navy or NOAA research vessels is great for our national security," Sullivan explained in a phone interview on Wednesday. "It just gives our military planners more options."

Dial was excited about those implications, too.

“Because this will be a secure facility, a conversation I had with Sen. Sullivan, we’re pretty excited that it has the potential to be used for other naval vessels as well,” Dial said. “So we're hoping we can get … vessels in here that need a secure location and also bring more military vessels, which will bring in people and their families to the community. So, huge win-win for us.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a press release on Wednesday morning that emphasized the facility’s potential military use as well.

“As geopolitical tensions in the Arctic escalate, monitoring and surveying America’s Arctic is of critical importance to our national security,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “The move to permanently base the Fairweather in Alaska, as the late Ted Stevens advocated for years ago, is a long overdue step toward defending the national interest.”