Ocean center edges forward

Senate funding keeps fisheries facility planners guessing

Posted: Thursday, August 03, 2000

The new $50 million National Marine Fisheries Service research facility at Lena Point, slated for ground-breaking in late spring 2001, is two kinds of dream -- a 7-year planning nightmare and a shot in the arm.

Mayor Dennis Egan minced no words about the National Marine Fisheries' current facility at Auke Bay.

``It's really hard to attract scientists and then put them in a container van,'' he said. ``The new facility means that the University of Alaska will have a major school of fisheries at Lena Point, designed with the university in mind. This will be a major shot in the arm for Juneau.''

Site preparation for roads, curbing, parking, the seawater system and other elements of infrastructure will begin in spring 2001, said John Gorman, regional management and budget officer for the National Fisheries Service. The second phase of construction starts the following spring and will be complete in late 2003.

The facility will help maintain the physical association between the university's fisheries program and the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Bill Smoker, director of the university's fisheries program. Local faculty could grow from the current eight to more than 12, he said.

The university will be only a part of a major National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration complex that will house close to 120 people.

NOAA is the fisheries service's parent federal agency.

The 23-acre facility will enclose about 69,000 square feet of space and include a 2,000-square-foot conference room.

``We've been working on this for seven years, and it's been a nightmare,'' Gorman said ``But now positive things are happening.''

The principal positive thing is the so-far steady flow of federal appropriations necessary to keep the project moving along.

But what had originally been an $80 million project got whittled down to $50 million early on, and the $50 million is still not exactly a done deal, according to Gorman.

To date, the Congress has come through with about $12 million, $3.3 million of which has been spent on design, he said. Another $15 million is currently in the Senate appropriations mill and the likelihood is the money will be awarded to the project. And there is the solid hope next year another $20 million will get the necessary ayes for funding what has already been designed.

Appropriations in dribs and drabs ``is one reason federal construction projects take so long,'' Gorman said.

NOAA had originally planned to build its new digs on land ceded to it by the Forest Service at Auke Cape, north of Auke Bay. But, citing historic and traditional uses of the land, local Tlingits objected -- and rejected NOAA proposals to work around the objections.

City authorities then proposed acquiring a $4 million, 23-acre parcel of land owned by Secon, a Lena Point construction company, and swapping that for the Auke Cape acreage.

The private buy-out has already happened and the NOAA/city swap is still being negotiated, Gorman said.

NOAA's prospective neighbors at Lena Point are already reaping the benefits of the Secon/city swap, City Manager Dave Palmer said. Secon's blasting and removal of rock from a quarry on its erstwhile land is over.

Palmer is now talking with Lena Point neighborhood association members about a road the city plans down the center of the ``U'' that is Lena Loop Road, he said.

That road is to be built with NOAA funds.

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