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By Dan Rudy 

Marine service center looking ahead to new year


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Shipwright Charlie Ross on the scaffolding around Lady Farrell, a Sitka-based boat he has been refurbishing at Wrangell Service Center since late June. "On wooden boats you have to have the craftsmanship," he said. "We want the whole fleet to come here."

As 2014 comes to a close, Wrangell's Marine Service Center is looking better and brighter for it. The facility was one of the centerpieces of the year's Southeast Conference in September, demonstrating the economic opportunities possible in the region.

At the start, the center already touted a 150-ton mobile boat lift, a 40-ton hydraulic trailer, a federally-approved washdown area and upland storage for 85 boats. The self-service yard gives boat owners the option to rent space and conduct work themselves, but a variety of skilled vendors and contractors are available to assist with specific projects, repairs, modifications or upgrades.

By the end of May a larger mobile lift began operations, a 300 metric tonne (330-ton) Italian model. Acquired at the lower-than-expected cost of $1.3 million, the hoist has opened access for Wrangell's yard to undertaking larger scale projects previously unavailable in Southeast.

"That was a good step, and we'll slowly build," said Greg Meissner, Wrangell's harbormaster.

Around $2.75 million left over from the large hoist purchase was reallocated for paving projects and other improvements around the yard's upland sections. Northern access to Silvernail Work Road between the museum and Bay Company was also paved, with work wrapping up before the onset of winter weather. Small sections along the museum fence line and behind Superior Marine Services are all that remains to be resurfaced.

The repaving work has been a noticeable improvement for the work environment of Steve Keller, owner of Keller Marine Repair.

"It's wonderful, we don't have to deal with the dust anymore," he said. Keller added that cementing the floor in his own shop will be his next project.

"Ever since we built the shop we've been pretty busy," said Keller. In business for five years, just over two years ago he had his shop space built at the yard's northwest corner.

"It's just been a positive thing for the whole town," he said of the yard. "We've got pretty much all the services here," contractors for steel and woodwork, electricians, parts, and fiberglassers like himself.

"Everybody that's here permanently does real high quality work," said shipwright Charlie Ross, owner of Driftwood Building LLC. Specializing in woodwork, Ross set up shop at the Wrangell yard this spring and is currently working on the "Lady Farrell," a 68-foot boat out of Sitka first launched in 1953. A shipwright for the past 14 years, he is doing most of the work himself: stern replacement, building new frames, adding aluminum stanchions and replacing all the deck and bow planking.

Beyond supporting the projects themselves, the community also has a number of amenities making it an attractive destination for having work done. It sports a pair of good hardware stores and a number of boat and part shops. And with a number of places to stay or eat, Wrangell makes coordinating projects more convenient.

"We pretty much pride ourselves on being one-stop," said Dave Nagle, with Superior Marine Services.

Superior Marine has been operating for about seven years, nearly the life of the yard itself. In that time the company has grown to employ 11 full-time workers, and once it sets up a second structure onsite will be able to double even that.

"We're hoping to have that up by early spring," said the company's owner, Don Sorric.

Space has been an issue for Sorric and other contractors at the yard, and the larger projects the big lift promises to pull in may exacerbate things with the need for workspace and additional equipment. In the next few months, Superior Marine has three boats over 100 feet long scheduled to arrive for work.

"That's the problem I see for the future," said Sorric. "We're pretty much maxed out ourselves." At present, Superior Marine accounts for slightly more than half of the work area available for lease at the boatyard, nearly 35,000 sq. ft.

"I'd like to have a lease but there's not any space available for it," said Ross. At the moment, his work area feels a bit cramped, with no permanent place to keep his tools.

For the yard's future, Keller would also like to see more work area, and less storage space. Especially in the spring, he said the lack of workroom can sometimes be a hassle.

"Other than that, things have been real good for me," he said.

Meissner explained the yard's proximity to the business district and other built-up parts of town limit its potential for expansion.

The borough continues to explore options for development elsewhere, such as its former Institute property or mill property at Zimovia Highway's 5.5-mile mark. Currently in private hands, the mill in particular would be ideal for a second yard, having deepwater access and plenty of room for the big hoist and its large projects.

"It has a lot of potential," said Meissner, but developing it will take a lot of time and money. Eventually he would like to see a private-public partnership there, driven by private investment.

"Wrangell's got the foothold in the industry," he said. "I would hope they would take that next step."

For the near future, the Harbor Department will be

preoccupied with preparing a plan and acquiring funding for the replacement of the Shoemaker Bay Harbor floats, as well as constructing the Mariners Memorial at Heritage Harbor. But Meissner said they will also be looking at unrolling a new electrical plan for the service yard, replacing its

streetlights in a way which ties it in to those of the business district.

"That'll be a small, local project," he said.

The Harbor Department will also be reevaluating its rates, looking at making some rate changes. Meissner explained they will try to make these users fee adjustments to some extent, such as by raising the per-square-foot ground rate for rental space from its current $0.50 to $0.75.

On the consumer side, Wrangell's Economic Development Committee will be looking into making the service center more accessible to customers. A website is currently being built that will serve as a hub for local enterprises, to be located at http://www.wrangellmarineindustry.com.

Economic Development Coordinator Carol Rushmore is currently working on a

questionnaire as well, to gather feedback from contractors and boatyard customers alike in order to identify current services, particular needs and other points to focus on.

"The idea is to get feedback from both sides," explained Julie Decker, a member of the committee and the Borough Assembly. Tying into that, the borough will be hosting a pair of public meetings on Jan. 12 and 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the Nolan Center regarding its upcoming Waterfront Master Plan, and how best to use the fill area beyond Campbell Drive between the marine yard and city dock.


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