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For several years, planning has been under way to build a new federal-university research complex in Juneau. Although site ownership has been secured at Point Lena, architectural plans drawn up, and money given to the city for neighborhood mitigation, ground has not been broken. Because the project has changed so much since it was conceived, perhaps it makes sense to go back to the drawing board and ask if there might be a better alternative than the project as presently outlined.
Initially the proposed complex was to combine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facilities in Juneau and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Juneau fisheries component at Auke Cape. When use of the Auke Cape site fell through, however, the revised plan called for the NMFS Regional Office (plus the NOAA General Counsel and enforcement personnel), the NMFS Auke Bay Laboratory, and the UAF Juneau fisheries program to move to Point Lena where new facilities would be constructed on the SECON quarry site. The NOAA Weather Service, which had been included in the planned consolidation at Auke Cape, had by then secured its own funding and was building a separate facility in the Mendenhall Valley. Next, the federal portion of the planned budget for the consolidation at Point Lena was reduced to about $50 million, and the decision was made for NMFS Regional Office personnel, plus NOAA General Counsel and enforcement personnel, to remain in their offices downtown. With NOAA Weather Service located elsewhere, the NMFS presence reduced, and UAF yet to allocate any money for construction of their part of the project, the Auke Bay Laboratory (ABL) became the only entity solidly slated to move to Point Lena.
Ironically, ABL has the most to lose by the move. The present location of ABL is a world-class site for fisheries research. It has a saltwater system, a dock on site, a salmon stream and lake next door. It is on city sewer, is served by public transportation, and is located in a convenient, mixed residential and commercial neighborhood. It is adjacent to the University of Alaska Southeast campus, and is close to supporting businesses, restaurants and lodging.
Leaving all this behind and moving to Point Lena might have made some sense when the sacrifice was for the general good of all parties involved in the move to the large, consolidated facility originally envisioned, but it makes little sense from the point of view of effective fisheries research. The Point Lena location is six miles from any supporting infrastructure. Building a dock out there is expensive because of the height and nature of the solid rock cliff the line will have to scale. And there is no source of untreated fresh water for conducting research on salmon, which require fresh water to spawn.
There also are some general problems related to the Point Lena site. With no community sewer system available there, the present plan is to treat waste from the 80 or so occupants and their research projects by using an "eco-pond," a concept that has never been tried in Alaska. More importantly, Lena Loop residents and CBJ have not been able to agree upon mitigation for the impact traffic to and from the proposed development will have on the neighborhood. And, finally, the cost of the site preparation alone, both in dollars (about $10 million) and to the neighborhood, which will not look forward to the extensive blasting required to level the building site, are high indeed.
What if the ABL were to remain at its present location? All the problems just outlined would disappear. There is, by all honest calculations, enough land at ABL's present location on Auke Bay to house a complex the same size as that proposed for Point Lena. In fact, when the present laboratory building was constructed in the 1950s, room for expansion was built into the design. While the present facility should be upgraded and more laboratory space is needed, it appears that the $50 million projected to be spent at the Lena site would more than cover the cost of upgrading and adding to the existing ABL campus.
What about the UAF fisheries group, the only other entity that might move to Point Lena? Common sense says they would be better served being close to the federal research facility and their sister entity, UAS. Wouldn't having all three groups in Auke Bay be the best solution? University-owned land adjacent to ABL and the UAS science building could be used for construction of a UAF fisheries building. Then the ABL, UAF fisheries and UAS would be within walking distance of each other, strengthening the research and teaching work of all three. Furthermore, both fisheries groups would be located on Auke Bay, with its many advantages for aquatic research. Any potential savings associated with upgrading ABL rather than building at Point Lena (perhaps as much as $20 million) if redirected by Congress could be put toward construction of the presently unfunded UAF fisheries building.
If development were to occur at Auke Bay rather than Point Lena, the construction community and local economy would still profit from the renovation of the existing ABL buildings and new construction at ABL and UAF fisheries, the community would still have a world-class fisheries research complex, and Lena Loop residents would not have to be concerned about the impact a large, non-residential complex would have on their residential neighborhood. It's not too late to do what's right for everyone!
Bob Palmer is a former state senator with extensive knowledge of Alaska fisheries. Virginia Palmer was involved in humpback whale research for over 15 years. They live in Juneau.