The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will build a scaled-down fisheries research center at Lena Point in Juneau, agency officials said Tuesday.
NOAA canceled bids on the Lena Point project last summer when the construction costs came in $6 million over budget. During the past nine months, officials reviewed options for Lena Point and the existing federal fisheries lab at Auke Bay.
NOAA Administrator and Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher told Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens on Tuesday afternoon that the agency will build at Lena Point.
"We took a hard look at our options within the existing budget and Lena Point continues to have the best potential to meet our future needs," Lautenbacher said. "Lena Point allows co-location with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and ensures that we keep commitments to the City and Borough of Juneau."
UAF has planned to build an $18 million, 41,500-square-foot research facility at Lena Point for classes and research in connection with the NOAA center. The city of Juneau contributed land at Lena Point for the center and helped build a 1.2-mile road to the site.
NOAA spokeswoman Sheela McLean said the agency will scale the project to fit within the existing $51 million budget. The center will be smaller than planned and a redesign could take 12 to 14 months, she said.
"The engineers and planners will rework the existing plan to make sure we can fit within the budget," she said. "The project will be re-bid."
Juneau Mayor Sally Smith hailed the decision as great news.
"For one thing, the city's investment is going to have a return," she said. "We had bought a working rock quarry where the location is to be at Lena Point, we put up a water tower and we built a road for mitigation of neighborhood impacts. For the community it's also going to mean jobs. We don't know how many yet."
City officials, including Smith, had been lobbying hard for the Lena Point site. As late as last week, one of NOAA's options called for not building anything at Lena Point, Smith said.
"When they came to us last week, we were not pleased with their proposed alternatives," she said. "And that would be putting it mildly. And I believe they took that to heart."
University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh also welcomed NOAA's decision. Science programs at UAS have been sharing cramped space with the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Juneau. A move by UAF to Lena Point will help both schools, he said.
"I really believe this is going to be extremely important to the community," Pugh said. "We feel it's an anchor to the community to attract other research entities."
Plans for the UAF center at Lena Point were put on hold as NOAA evaluated its options, Pugh said. The University of Alaska system has secured $9 million in bond funds for the $18 million construction budget for the UAF project and had planned to work with the state Legislature to find the rest.
"We were on hold because site is so critical to design," he said. "If they were going to move the site, we would have to re-look at the whole project."
The National Marine Fisheries Service's lab at Auke Bay houses 95 people and last year's plans would have put 107 people at a 61,000-square-foot Lena Point lab in 2004. McLean said it's too early to tell how many people might move to Lena Point under a re-scaled project. Earlier plans called for keeping some limited research at Auke Bay.
"The marine research facilities have been (at Auke Bay) for 40 years so it has quite a history," McLean said. "We're rescaling and don't know exactly what the breakout will be."
Lena Point has room for expansion in the longterm, which is one reason NOAA decided on the site, McLean added. Work on the fisheries center started in 1992. The overall budget was cut from $78 to $51 million as plans evolved.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was briefed by NOAA staff members Tuesday, said the decision to stick with Lena Point will benefit fisheries research and Juneau's economy.
"We all owe Admiral Lautenbacher sincere thanks for settling this matter once and for all," she said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.
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