The U.S. Department of Commerce will proceed with construction of a National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory at Lena Point in Juneau as soon as possible, according to Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski's office.
The Empire was not able to confirm the decision with the Department of Commerce by its midday deadline. The center at Lena Point, planned to be 69,000 square feet, was expected to provide room for about 100 NMFS employees in Juneau.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, parent agency of the NMFS, canceled a bid process for the Lena Point center this summer after the lowest construction bid came in $6 million higher than a $36 million estimate. The entire project was budgeted at $51 million and NOAA decided last month to evaluate whether to downsize the Lena Point Center or improve the current NMFS lab at Auke Bay before moving forward.
But Kelly Sandy, project director for the Juneau NOAA fisheries center, said at 3 p.m. today that Lena Point and Auke Bay are still on the table as sites for the center.
"We're going to rescope the project and make sure we can come within budget. That causes us not only to look at the Lena Point site, but adequate alternatives," he said. "That process will come to a head on Jan. 15 when the options will be presented to NOAA management. We do agree with the senator that we need to act responsibly and come within budget and we want to get the best facility we can afford."
Murkowski was told of the department's decision this morning by phone, according to staff members. NOAA should be able to redesign the laboratory, downscale the architecture and still build a functional building, he said in a press release.
"We worked hard to get this authority authorized and appropriated, and we're not going to have NOAA redirecting the congressional intent of this facility going in here," Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said during a press conference in Juneau on Friday. "There is no excuse for holding this thing up."
Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, a Democrat who is running against Murkowski in the Alaska gubernatorial race, also has been on the phone this past week about the project, urging federal officials to move forward with the Lena Point site, she said. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is planning an adjacent laboratory and education center at Lena Point.
"There's a clear preference for Lena Point to go forward," she said. "It's really a joint facility. I won't say Auke Bay won't continue to be used, but it's just not a big enough area to meet the needs of NOAA's expansion and UAF."
The challenge now will be to secure funds for the project, she said.
"I hope at the federal, state and local level, we'll be open to finding creative partnerships to make it happen," she said.
Interim City Manager John MacKinnon hailed today's word about the Lena Point site as good news. The city has been proceeding with construction of a 1.2-mile access road at Lena Point that would serve the fisheries centers and a proposed subdivision.
"We've been working on this and other people have been working on this and there's been a flood of e-mail," he said. "It's clear (there's) overwhelming community support for this project."
Members of the Lena Extended Neighborhood Association have objected to the city's plans to build the access road without assurance a fisheries center will be built in the neighborhood.
NOAA's Sandy said the agency hasn't formally directed the city to stop building the road.
"Basically our position to the city has been to describe what we're doing and allow them to act within their own judgment," he said.
Melanie Alvord, press secretary to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, earlier this week said it is unlikely the Juneau fisheries center will receive more funding in the pending budget.
"In order to get more money for Lena Point it would require a floor amendment taking money from another Alaska project," she said. "That's not likely to happen because we're already committed to try to get those projects funded. It's now up to NOAA to review the project and see how costs can be cut so the project can move forward."
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.