Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams
Repairing the state ferry LeConte is the fourth emergency to which Ketchikan Shipyard has responded this year, the 20th in 10 years of operation. And to think, it was in the mid-1990s that top officials of the Alaska Department of Transportation sought to shut down Ketchikan Shipyard and sell the drydock, its centerpiece.
Fortunately for DOT and Alaskans, wiser heads instead moved shipyard control from DOT to the Alaska Industrial and Export Authority (AIDEA). That shipyard now can put DOT's ferry LeConte back in operation in record time after its grounding mishap without the cost and time loss of towing it south.
Ketchikan Shipyard was conceived when state Reps. Terry Gardiner and Oral Freeman and Sen. Bob Ziegler, all of Ketchikan, secured a $30 million appropriation in the 1970s for the facility. The shipyard opened in 1987. The initial appropriation bought the land, the dry dock and built the main pier. But it didn't complete the shipyard to an economically viable operation, as several unsuccessful operators found out.
A plan developed in 1982 laid out what more was needed to complete an economically viable yard. The price tag is $63 million in today's dollars. It includes another shiplift for moving vessels onto land berths for repair, large structures for working under a cover and other facilities.
After being closed for several years, the shipyard reopened in 1994 when a Ketchikan construction company, Tymatt, headed by Randy Johnson, formed Alaska Ship and Drydock and took over operation of Ketchikan Shipyard on a contract with DOT. In 1997, local pressure overcame DOT's desire to shut down the yard and it went to AIDEA. Alaska Ship and Drydock worked out an operating agreement with AIDEA in which they share the profits, if any, and work to complete the '82 plan. Keeping the yard ownership with a government agency, AIDEA, makes it eligible for government grants. Rep. Don Young has a $25 million grant in a federal budget bill.
Part of the plan has been completed, thanks to earlier grants and appropriations. A large machine shop has been constructed. The shipyard opens bids in July for another drydock, expected to cost near $10 million. It will enable the yard to build more vessels and handle maintenance on all vessels up to 250 feet in length,
Doug Ward, director of business development for Ketchikan Shipyard, says that except for large cruise ship and tankers, most vessels operating in Alaska waters are 250 feet or less. So the second drydock will boost the repair capacity of the yard, which operates now with only the one 450-foot drydock.
The shipyard serves vessel owners from Puget Sound to the North Pacific high seas fishing fleet, including Canadian companies. The shipyard built Ketchikan Gateway Borough's largest airport ferry, the Oral Freeman, so it has construction experience. In addition, Ketchikan Shipyard has an agreement to build an unusual ferry designed by Lockheed for use in Alaska. The first one goes in the water in 2005. It will be used as a ferry across Knik Arm near Anchorage before the causeway is built. Small Alaska communities without ferry service have heard about the revolutionary new design and are interested.
The ship looks like a 200-foot seasled. It is called a Varicraft because it can be used as a landing craft to provide ferry service to villages and camps without a ferry dock. And it operates at high speed in deep water.
This brings a whole new ship construction program - jobs - to Alaskans.
The shipyard takes advantage of its large floating dry dock by lifting several ships or barges at a time. An Army tug and barge from Puget Sound and the LeConte are keeping two crews busy as this is written The second drydock, designed to also transfer vessels to dryland berths, further boosts the yard's capacity.
For the past year the yard has employed up to 100 highly paid skilled workers. Although its gross revenue has averaged $10 million over the past 10 years, a 1999 revised plan estimates that on completion of the yard it can average $33 million a year and employ an average of 200 skilled workers.
It's operation creates other jobs in the community. With all the jobs and purchases of supplies and services, it injects about $5 million into the state and community each year. That amount can triple with the yard's completion.
Ward believes shipyard business projections are conservative. If the Lockheed Varicraft design is successful, it might have military use. And although the shipyard builds and services ships, it can build portable harbors and such items as ramps for boat harbors.
It is creating a new industry in Alaska. It works year-round and its busiest time is during winter, when other industries are relatively inactive.