Good news for Ketchikan arrived on Wednesday morning.
After years of effort by federal, state and local officials, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an $18.7 million contract to renovate its dock facility in Ketchikan to allow for the homeporting of the NOAA research vessel Fairweather here in the First City.
The contract with Ahtna Infrastructure & Technologies calls for the removal of the current pier that was condemned in 2008, and the building of a new floating pier, steel access trestle, office building, and water and power utilities.
Upon completion, which is expected by the end of 2022, the renovated facility at 1010 Stedman St. will be able to accommodate the 231-foot hydrographic survey ship Fairweather.
The Fairweather was commissioned in 1968, deactivated in 1989, then reactivated in 2004 to address a backlog of survey needs in Alaska.
Anticipating the reactivation, then Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, successfully worked to place language designating Ketchikan as the home port of the Fairweather into a 2002 appropriations bill
“The Fairweather will bring a much-needed capability to the tremendous survey backlog in Alaska waters,” Stevens said around that time, as quoted by NOAA. “I know Ketchikan will give a warm welcome to the vessel and the NOAA families attached to it.”
However, in 2008, the Fairweather dock at the Stedman Street was condemned because of its poor condition. NOAA moved the ship’s base to Oregon — and Alaska officials have been fighting to return the ship to Ketchikan ever since.
Alaska Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have been involved with that effort the longest. In more recent years, they’ve been joined by U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska; Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Rodney Dial and Alaska Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.
The hurdle has been the availability of and funding for a viable dock facility in Ketchikan.
For some reason(s), NOAA itself never appeared keen to pursue funding to refurbish the Stedman Street facility or find another solution to resume home porting the Fairweather in Ketchikan as directed by the 2002 legislation.
That left it to elected officials. While the concept of building a combined NOAA — Alaska Marine Highway System moorage facility in Ward Cove failed to reach fruition, the option of renovating the Stedman Street facility remained. Funding was always a central issue, however.
Stedman did some of the financial heavy lifting in 2012 when he helped secure legislative approval to provide $7.5 million in state general fund dollars to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough for use toward a NOAA dock facility.
After Sullivan in 2018 obtained a legislative provision to allow NOAA to accept and use such non-federal funds for Ketchikan dock facility.
It should be noted here that, in addition to the funding side, many conversations about NOAA’s potential commitment to bringing the ship back to Ketchikan have occurred between Alaska officials and NOAA. It would be interesting to be able to calculate the number of letters, phone calls, congressional hearings and in-person meetings that have transpired on this subject since 2008.
A key letter was signed in August of 2019 by Wilbur Ross, who then was secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Ross had written to Sullivan with a commitment.
“If the pier at 1010 Stedman Street, Ketchikan, AK is repaired to the required specifications and the necessary funding for shoreside facilities is provided, NOAA will return (the) NOAA ship Fairweather to the pier and use it as a permanent homeport (up to historical averages),” Ross wrote.
That commitment appears to have triggered the final series of events leading up to Wednesday’s announcement.
In 2020, the borough transfered about $6.5 million to NOAA for the purpose of a Ketchikan docking facility.
And, in late 2020, Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that includes $13 million in federal funding for the project.
Thus, while NOAA’s announcement Wednesday perhaps wasn’t a huge surprise, it provides great reassurance to the community. The facility indeed will be renovated; Ketchikan will see the Fairweather again.
Our appreciation goes to all who have worked — many over the spans of years — to see this effort through to this point.
We’re with Sen. Stedman when he says: “I’m very glad that after years of pushing this project, it’s finally ready to break ground.”
And, as the late Sen. Ted Stevens said, we know that Ketchikan is looking forward to providing a fine and warm welcome to the Fairweather and all associated with the vessel and its crew.