Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:04 PM on Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Big plans, small changes all part of what's on drawing board

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about the importance of Homer's harbor and the marine trades to the economy of Homer.)

Although the Homer Harbor might be icebound these days, people looking ahead see a bright future. Proposed projects range from an $85,000 restroom expansion at the Fish Dock to the big dream of a $100-million East Harbor that could bring 40 to 60 large commercial ships to Homer.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Large fishing boats rafted together illustrates the need for more harbor space.

"Put your sunglasses on," Homer City Manager Walt Wrede said, only half joking about some of the big plans on the horizon.

The challenge remains how to not only fund future projects, but to keep up with maintenance on the existing harbor. Exploring options is the Port Improvement Committee, a subcommittee of the Homer City Council that includes three council members and two Port and Harbor Commission members. The Port and Harbor Commission also advises the council on harbor development and issues, with the council voting on budgets and policy.

"We're always trying to do so much stuff, but who's going to pay for it?" said Steve Zimmerman, a Port and Harbor Commission member.

Walk around the harbor during the busy summer and between fishing seasons, and stalls and slips filled over capacity tell the story. Some 32-foot and bigger boats tie up at one slip in rafts two or more deep.

"Those rafts are indicators the harbor is full," said Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins. "Yeah, the harbor is full."

A harbor tug helps mariners move their boats — "like the dance of the elephants," Hawkins said of the maneuvers. Rafts of four boats abreast exceed design capacity. While boats 24 feet or less can find space, the waiting list for boats 32 feet and longer is two years and more. For 40-foot boats it's three to four years and for 75-foot boats it's a five-year or more wait.

Priority projects

The city council has put three harbor projects on its top-15 Capital Improvement Project list for 2012-2017. Topping the list is a group of projects to be partly paid for with revenue bonds, the Harbor Improvement Revenue Bond Projects, estimated to cost $12.7 million. Also on the CIP list is a $28 million Deep Water Dock expansion and a $300,000 Fish Dock truck loading area upgrade.

The Revenue Bond Projects include a lot of projects that in a perfect world would be paid for out of a depreciation fund. Many of these projects aren't bold new plans, but the city recognizing it has to catch up on deferred maintenance. That includes replacing old and damaged harbor floats and the 1960s-era Ramp 3 gangway — the steep gangway that on an extreme low tide can seem like climbing Poot Peak.

City auditors say that for the harbor's $44 million in assets, the city should be setting aside $1.25 million or more annually into a depreciation account. In times of tight city budgets, the council has been putting $500,000 a year into that account.

"I think we should be doing more of that, but that of course requires raising fees," Wrede said.

When the economy is down, the city doesn't want to do that.

"They don't have extra money to spend," Wrede said of harbor users. "The last thing you want to do to them is raise their fees. It's a conundrum."

Of that $12.7 million in the Revenue Bond Projects, the city has identified $6.5 million in existing or projected grant funds. One project, reconstructing the Load and Launch Ramp at a cost of $3.5 million, could be mostly paid out of federal Sport Fish Restoration Act funds and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Funds. At its last meeting, the council approved a memorandum of understanding with ADF&G to start the process of making that happen.

Because the Revenue Bond Projects would be paid out of bonds identifying a particular revenue source — harbor user fees — a public vote would not be required. Once engineers come up with more concrete cost amounts for the projects, the Port and Harbor Commission would look at the fee schedule to figure out how much fees would have to be raised to pay for the projects.

The city also is working with Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and other legislators to see if Homer projects could be included in a general obligation bond for statewide harbor projects, including a Port of Anchorage expansion. That bond would be voted on by Alaskans in a statewide election.

The Port and Harbor Commission backs most of the Revenue Bond Projects with one exception: the Port and Harbor building.

"It's trying to get all those repair things done," Zimmerman said.

He said the commission is still looking at the building.

"The rest of it needs to be done. I hope it gets done," he said.

Wrede said the commission resisted the idea of a Port and Harbor building on piers over the harbor similar to how buildings are done in the Seward Harbor. The plan also would have offices for the Coast Guard and some federal agencies to be rented out.

"We're looking seriously at scaling that back a bit," Wrede said.

One idea would be to renovate an existing building at the harbor. Wrede said he's talking to a building owner, but didn't want to release the name during negotiations.

Future ideas

The Deep Water Dock expansion would enlarge and beef up the dock so that freight barges and cranes could move containers onto trucks — the 50-year-old dream of getting freight barges to offload in Homer instead of going on to Anchorage. Even if big SeaLand and TOTE barges don't stop here, it could lure smaller barge traffic.

Another big idea could boost the marine trades industry: the $3 million Marine Ways large vessel haulout facility. Boats could be moved from tidewater to the old chip pad for projects like sandblasting. Northern Enterprise can handle boats up to 70 tons, but bigger ships have to go to Kodiak and elsewhere to get out of the water.

Homer has some of the best workers in marine trades, but they have to travel elsewhere to do work on big boats, said Bruce Flanigan, owner of the Helenka B, a freight hauler, and Alaskan Coastal Freight.

"If we had a facility where we could bring the boats out, there's more people working," he said. "There's more money for the city as far as rental on the pad."

Zimmerman, owner of Desperate Marine, agreed.

"We definitely need that," he said. "That's probably more important than a harbor expansion."

Flanigan also advocates for a Sheet Pile Dock to be built on the Deep Water Dock side of the harbor near the fuel tanks. That would allow big ships to tie up and have gear offloaded by cranes. Gear could then be easily moved over to leased city land in the area.

East Harbor dreaming

Although still in the long-range plan, the East Harbor expansion is on the back burner because of a low score by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps ranks proposed harbors on a benefit-cost basis. It doesn't recommend projects with a score less than 3. Homer got a score of .30, Hawkins said.

"I was disappointed in the study," he said. "I would argue some of the findings."

The East Harbor would add another 15-acre boat basin on the Deep Water Dock side and be dredged to 22 feet, deep enough for large fishing boats and Coast Guard cutters like the Roanoke Island.

The Corps of Engineers ranks Alaska projects on a national scale, Hawkins noted, which presents a challenge for any Alaska port considering its small population. Another approach would be to get support through Alaska's congressional delegation and other members of Congress.

"If we have enough support, they can give direction to the Corps of Engineers and say, 'Thank you for your study. We want it built. Here's the funding,'" Hawkins said.

The city also has been looking at smaller projects that will improve the efficiency and lower the cost of the harbor, Hawkins said. One simple savings was to replace photocells on the high-mast tower lights that turn lights on and off as the sun rises and sets. That saved two hours of run time daily, he said.

Some projects will move ahead this year, like the $6 million in improvements to the Deep Water Dock to address seagull nesting and parking lot paving and restrooms at the base, all paid for out of cruise ship taxes. That also will fund downtown restrooms and a trail around the harbor and at Coal Point Park.

Big projects or small, bold visions or practical solutions, city officials and commission members keep looking ahead to keep the harbor running efficiently and serving all users.

"It's a great harbor," Wrede said. "It really means a lot to the community. We get a lot of positive feedback out there."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.