The Sitka Assembly is moving forward with a long-planned seaplane base project. While new estimates project the cost at more than double original predictions, the assembly is going for a fully-realized project rather than a more affordable scaled-back option.
The existing seaplane base is 65 years old, and longstanding plans to replace the aging infrastructure are finally moving forward. And while the price tag is higher, the city plans to cover most of the construction and the land purchase with federal grant money.
In September, Public Works Director Mike Harmon told the assembly that the project could end up costing more than double their original estimates. On Tuesday, at its latest meeting, Harmon brought several options to the assembly for consideration. A full-scale project totaling $38 million or a scaled-back project with a $28 million price tag. With either option, the city would cover a 6 percent match: just over $2.1 million for the bigger project, or around $1.5 million for the scaled-back version– a difference of around $600,000.
Several community members voiced support for the full build out. Schuyler Mace works for the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA), heading the coho enhancement project on Deer Lake on the other side of Baranof Island. He said floatplanes were crucial to their work — they fly year round for the troll fleet, and spend over $50,000 on aviation.
“And the access we have right now compared to other areas in Southeast is pretty poor,” Schuyler said. “I guess I fully support the full plan for this, as it directly affects my job and a lot of people in the community, and it would be a lot greater, or it’d be a lot more problematic, for how our project operates. If we didn’t have aircraft services.”
And assembly members lined up behind the full build out too. Member Kevin Mosher said $600,000 was a lot of money, but not when you were leveraging it for another $10 million. And he believed they shouldn’t delay the project any longer.
“The federal government is spending a lot of money right now in infrastructure for this country,” Mosher said. “This isn’t gonna last forever. We don’t know when we’re gonna get this kind of opportunity again, and I see this as building something for the future that will last many years to come.”
Assembly member Rebecca Himschoot believed the smaller project would be less attractive overall for floatplane operators.
“If we do anything less than the full build, we run the risk of people not finding it enticing to use our facility and choosing instead to go somewhere else, or choosing not to fly here,” Himschoot said. “So I think that’s a really important factor.”
No one spoke out against the seaplane base at Tuesday’s meeting, though at assembly and school board meetings in 2021, staff from Ravens Way voiced concern about its location on Japonski island, being near health and recovery services. And the Sitka Tribe of Alaska submitted a letter to the FAA and the state in 2021, with concerns over the location.
Ultimately the assembly unanimously approved the full build-out . Afterwards, Barranautica TK owner Kevin Mulligan said he was both surprised and overjoyed that it finally passed.
“It’s gonna be a great opportunity for Sitka,” Mulligan said. “We’re gonna go from having the worst seaplane facility in Southeast to the nicest one.”
Right now Mulligan is the only floatplane operator providing transportation services in Sitka.
“There’s times that I didn’t even want to get in the plane, and I’d go out flying…to bring somebody to the hospital or somebody needs to go see their family if there’s a death in the family or something, or Thanksgivings coming up. And then this weather… just changes in minutes,” Mulligan said. “To have other operators out there just for backup…it’s just really important, and it’s really exciting.”
If approved on final reading, the $2.1 million in matching funds will be drawn from the city’s general fund to purchase the land and move forward with the project. But Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said he hoped that the city would create a separate enterprise fund for the seaplane base in the future.
“I want to make sure that the user fees are enough to cover the maintenance of the facility, especially with this one being directed at a pretty specific group. While we will have people utilizing the freight services and the ferry services, you know, I just want to make sure that we can replace this facility in the future, and then when stuff breaks that we’re able to go down and fix it,” Eisenbeisz said.
The assembly will consider the project funding on final reading at its next regular meeting on November 22.
Haulout next steps:
The assembly is moving forward with plans to build a marine haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park with a small-but-necessary next step: moving the money into an account where the funds can be spent.
When the group met on November 8, it greenlit the transfer of $8.2 million dollars from the Sitka Permanent Fund to the GPIP capital project fund. The arrangement was approved by the voters in the municipal election last month, with over 80-percent in support of building a haulout at the park.
“I took a look at our legislative priorities list that we passed last year, and if you look at the top items on that list, everything is moving right now,” said Municipal Administrator John Leach. “That’s great. We got what we asked for, and maybe it’s bad that we got what we asked for, because we’re really, really, really, busy right now. Number one was the working waterfront, and we’ve got the RAISE grant for the Marine Service Center and sea wall. The voters approved the haulout, we’ve got the seaplane base moving. I can go on and on with the projects that are happening.”
The assembly unanimously passed the ordinance to transfer funds for the haulout on first reading. Leach said if the assembly passes the ordinance on second reading, he’ll go to the GPIP (gee-pip) board with the funds and a “project charter” outlining the next steps. Then the public will get the chance to weigh in on the plans.