Lena Point residents are not the only locals with qualms about a $50 million fisheries center planned for that neighborhood.
The proposed site has found new opposition in Joe Greenough, a 23-year employee of the Auke Bay Lab who retired as deputy director last year. When contacted by the Empire, Greenough said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opted to move its lab to a Lena Point quarry, spurning the best location of all - the lab's current site on Auke Bay, in the crook of Fritz Cove Road and Glacier Highway.
"That site is probably one of the best, if not the best site in the world for salmonid research. It just doesn't make much sense to abandon it for a rock quarry," said Greenough, adding he believed some senior employees at the lab felt the same way.
Bill Heard, who manages one of the lab's salmon research programs, was reluctant to publicly second-guess his employer, but called some of its decisions on the project "unfortunate."
"Hindsight being wonderful, it would have been nice if it could have given serious consideration to building on this site," said Heard from the Auke Bay Lab, which gathers data to help the federal government manage fisheries in the North Pacific.
However, program manager John Gorman dismissed employee misgivings about the move as "separation anxiety" and defended NOAA's decision, saying the project would cost less to build at Lena Point than at Auke Bay.
"I'm looking at this from the corporate viewpoint, and it's a wise business decision for us to relocate to Lena Point," said Gorman, who works for the National Marine Fisheries Services, or NMFS, a NOAA agency.
The Auke Bay property is considered a world-class site because it puts researchers in close proximity to seawater and the freshwater systems of Auke Creek and Auke Lake where scientists study four species of salmon plus cutthroat and steelhead trout and Dolly Varden. It is rare in the world to find such a compact marine-to-lake ecosystem that supports so many species of fish, said Greenough, noting the distance from lake to saltwater often spans many miles.
"There may not be another place anywhere that's got all of those advantages," he said.
The problem is researchers at Lena Point would have access to saltwater but not freshwater systems, Greenough said. Although NOAA plans to maintain a hatchery on Auke Creek where scientists do some freshwater research, it will not maintain the lab. Researchers would be able to carry out freshwater research at the Auke Bay site only if NOAA expanded the hatchery to make up for lost lab space, Greenough said. Heard, the salmon research manager, agreed.
"Unless NOAA follows through to expand the Auke Creek site, provide fresh water lab space, then, yes, we will be compromised at Lena over what we can do now," Heard said.
Although the agency has promised to improve the hatchery, it has not requested money from Congress and Gorman of NMFS did not know when the renovation would happen.
"We're taking this one step at a time," Gorman said.
The Auke Bay site was not on the radar when the project was first conceived as a $78 million complex to house the lab, a cafeteria, library, meeting halls and offices for lab employees plus other federal workers in Juneau. At the time, the Auke Bay site was thought too small for the proposed 148,000-square-foot facility meant to consolidate up to 273 mostly NMFS employees into one building.
However, when the budget for the project was chopped to $50 million two years ago, the size of the proposed complex was scaled back to fit only about 100 workers - more than enough room for the lab's staff but not the rest of NMFS' employees. At that point, the smaller Auke Bay location became a contender for the pared-down project, Greenough said.
But NOAA ruled out the site after an Anchorage consultant hired by the agency concluded the project would cost $2 million to $5.6 million more at Auke Bay than at Lena Point. The consultant pinned most of the extra cost on an underground parking structure necessary at Auke Bay because the property is so small, the study said.
However, Greenough dismissed the analysis because the consultant did not weigh the cost of troubleshooting environmental and social concerns that crop up as construction projects move forward. Those costs, such as road improvements at Lena Point, likely would make that site more expensive, he said.
Gorman said extra costs associated with the Lena Point site have cost NOAA only $1.7 more since the study was done and that the agency would stay within its budget of $50 million. Even if the Auke Bay site were cheaper, it's not big enough to expand the center into the large complex NOAA first envisioned and still hopes to build one day, Gorman said.
"The agency has a long-term goal of consolidating its resources here in Juneau. To do that, we need a site larger than the Auke Bay Lab site," Gorman said. "The whole argument about whether we should build there or Lena is a moot point. We're building at Lena Point."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.