Price tag on hatchery threatens to sink project

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The $100 million price tag on a proposed hatchery for Anchorage is threatening to sink the project.

The state's latest estimate for building the new hatchery is more than double the original estimate, which is making some lawmakers balk. In addition to the cost, lawmakers in other parts of the state aren't keen on having their regions foot the bill for a hatchery in Anchorage.

The House Finance Committee held a hearing Wednesday to look at the proposed hatchery, and another one in Fairbanks. Several committee members expressed skepticism about the Anchorage hatchery, which would rear salmon, trout and other fish for areas lakes and streams.

The hearing looked at legislation by Gov. Sarah Palin laying out a financing plan for the two hatcheries.

"It's way too much money," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines. "In my experience with hatcheries, it must be a Taj Mahal of hatcheries."

But the state's sportfish director, Charles Swanton, said that new hatcheries are needed, and he noted that sportfishing creates tremendous economic ripples through local communities.

The Department of Fish and Game's existing hatchery assets in Anchorage are worn out and need to be replaced, he said.

"It's long overdue," Swanton said. "We have essentially seen the crumbling of these facilities for 10 to 15 years."

The Anchorage hatchery would be located on federally owned land at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

State lawmakers in 2005 approved legislation that relied on a bond issue and a $9 surcharge on resident sportfish licenses sold statewide to finance construction of the hatcheries.

The original cost of the Anchorage hatchery was under $50 million, Swanton said.

But construction costs have risen dramatically, he said. Now it'll take $100 million to build and equip the hatchery, according to House Bill 418.

The bill lays out a complicated financing scheme built on revenue from the fishing license surcharge plus millions of state dollars.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he's troubled by the new cost estimate. He said it was tough to cobble enough votes to approve the original hatchery funding plan in 2005, he said. Now it might be harder given the higher cost, Meyer said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said he believes lawmakers need more information and should hold a hearing with hatchery engineers and designers.

"Do we need a hatchery? Yes. Does it need to cost $100 million? Probably not," said Gara, an avid trout fisherman.

Fairbanks lawmakers are nervous because without passage of the bill they might be short of money to complete the Fairbanks hatchery.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said he wants to see the Fairbanks hatchery project move forward as site preparation already has begun.

"You can't leave us with a hole in the ground," he said. "It's not fair."

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