KENAI — The government program that grounded a landing craft on a Kodiak island will next year bring a new airstrip to Old Harbor.
The airstrip is a key part of Old Harbor’s economic revitalization plan, but it wouldn’t happen nearly as fast without the help of the military’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which sends soldiers on missions to remote parts of the United States to prepare them for similar jobs overseas.
“We’re talking about a multimillion-dollar job there,” said Fred Brooks, Old Harbor tribal administrator. “It’s a training event for those individuals in the service.”
The Innovative Readiness Training program is the same one that resulted in an Army vessel being intentionally beached just off Kodiak last month after it hit a charted rock. The vessel was sent to Seward for repairs.
The Old Harbor project involves two stages: cutting back a set of hills that generate fierce crosswinds at the current airstrip, then lengthening the airstrip to create a longer runway.
“When they built the original airstrip, they just cut right through the hill,” said Cynthia Berns-Lopez, vice president of corporate affairs for Old Harbor Native Corporation. “There’s a very bad wind vortex out there.”
The IRT team was scheduled to arrive in Old Harbor this year, but budget conditions meant the project was pushed back by a year.
The project isn’t sitting idle, however. This summer, local workers are completing the first stage of the runway project, using heavy equipment to grind away the hills.
“It was really the state, the city, the federal government and the tribe to develop this in unison,” Brooks said.
As envisioned by the Old Harbor economic development plan, the runway will be a key component in the city’s future, working alongside the city’s new dock.
Fish processors have visited Old Harbor to judge its suitability for a processing plant, and a longer runway will allow large aircraft to take off and land. Old Harbor could then become a more important stop in the “fish bus” route that delivers fresh seafood by air from places like Dillingham, King Salmon and Kodiak to Anchorage.
Without air transportation, fish products must be frozen for transport, resulting in a cheaper, lower-quality product.
Berns-Lopez said representatives of two major seafood processors have visited Old Harbor to examine its suitability for a plant. The names of the processors were withheld because negotiations are ongoing.