Homeporting the Fairweather, a decades long quest
By DAVE KIFFER
April 13, 2021
Ahtna Infrastructure is a subsidiary of Ahtna Netiye’, Inc. which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ahtna Native Corportation, the Glennallen based Alaska Native Corp. Ahtna has done previous projects in Alaska for the FAA and the Coast Guard. It also worked for NOAA on a project in Alabama.
Back in the late 1990s, NOAA was at a crossroads, much of its coastal survey fleet was aging and several of the vessels, including the Fairweather had been taken out of service. But the replacements for those ships, as exemplified by the Oscar Dyson which was then under construction, were proving much more expensive and NOAA was looking at smaller budgets in the future.
NOAA decided to bring the Fairweather, which had been tied up for nearly a decade, back into service. But it was considered only a short term move until a new vessel could be built to replace it.
The Fairweather had been built in the early 1960s at the Aerojet General Shipyards in Jacksonville, Florida for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. She was completed in 1967 and went into service for the USCGS from 1968 to 1970. She-then was transferred to the newly formed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) which absorbed the USCGS and the National Weather Service.
After a lengthy retrofit, the Fairweather was ready to come back online, based at NOAA facilities at Lake Union in Seattle. But it was then that Alaska's US Sentator Ted Stevens threw the agency a curveball.
Stevens was the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, making him one of the most powerful legislators in the federal government. He was known for steering projects to his home state and with the Fairweather he saw an opportunity to do just that.
In this case, Ketchikan would be the benefit of his largess. The First City had lost its primary economic engine when the Louisiana Pacific Pulp Mill had closed down several years before and Stevens had already steered millions of dollars of economic relief aid into the community. He decided to require that the Fairweather be homeported in Ketchikan as additional "economic relief." Stevens also wanted to make sure that Alaska stayed at the center of NOAA's operations as its budgets declined.
Besides building a new NOAA facility in Ketchikan for the Fairweather, Stevens and local leaders also hoped that the homeporting action would encourage crew members and their families to relocate to Ketchikan at a time when the town population had dropped because of the mill closure.
NOAA purchased a dock and uplands on Stedman Street between a cannery and an oil tank farm. Over time, NOAA expected to put some money into rehabbing the property. Meanwhile, the Fairweather would continue to spend summer mapping Southeast Alaska, where some of the charts had not been updated since the 1920s. It would use the Ketchikan Coast Guard base when it needed to dock in the area.
But in 2007, NOAA determined that the dock it had purchased was not repairable and would have to be completely replaced. Suddenly, the cost to make Ketchikan a true homeport for the ship rose in the $20 million range and NOAA didn't have the money. NOAA officials suggested that a better approach for the agency would be to sell the property and use the money elsewhere in the agency.
NOAA was also in the process of consolidating its Pacific Northwest operations into a single location. Eventually Newport Oregon would be chosen.
Afraid that the homeport designation would go away without a dock, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough added a visit to the NOAA headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland to its annual lobbying trip to Washington DC. Over the next several years, local officials - and their lobbbyist - became well known amongst the NOAA staff, which met with them and offered the same response, year after year, that they just didn't have the money.
Ketchikan also received help in its quest from state officials, primarily State Senator Bert Stedman, and from its federal delegation, initially US Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, who had defeated Stevens in 2008. Murkowski had a seat on the appropriations committee and Begich was the co-chair of the committee that oversaw NOAA. When Begich was defeated by Dan Sullivan in 2014, Sullivan kept up the pressure on NOAA to find the money to upgrade its Ketchikan facility.
At the time, NOAA was also looking into partnering with the Alaska Marine Highway System on a joint facility in Ward Cove. The AMHS had moved its operations center to Ward Cove in the early 2000s and had plans to build a layup facility in the cove to take the pressure off the Ketchikan Shipyard which was being used for offseason ferry berthing.
NOAA and AMHS had numerous meetings to discuss how the layup facility could be funded with both state and federal funds, but that project never got past the preliminary design stage and was eventually abandoned.
Meanwhile, Senator Stedman had found a way to repurpose $7 million in federal funding by transferring it to the borough to be then used for a NOAA replacement facility on Stedman Street.
In 2019, Senator Sullivan secured a commitment from NOAA to go ahead with a multi-million rehab of the property that would include a new floating dock, a new administration building and other site improvements.
Last week, a tidal wave of press releases were released announcing that Ahnta Infrastructure and Technologies had received the $18,771 million contract to do rehab the Ketchikan NOAA property. Work is expected to be completed by December of 2022.
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