South Whidbey port may help Oak Harbor land boat builder

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Geoff Tapert addresses the Oak Harbor City Council last week on a plan that could land an expansion of Freeland
Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Geoff Tapert addresses the Oak Harbor City Council last week on a plan that could land an expansion of Freeland's Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on the Seaplane Base.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Freeland’s Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is finding plenty of friends this year as yet another public agency is expressing interest in helping the private  boatbuilder expand its operations to Oak Harbor.

At the Oak Harbor City Council’s regular Tuesday meeting last week, Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Geoff Tapert proposed a radical new idea in which the port would become the primary lessee of the Seaplane Base property sought by Nichols Brothers.

Under a three-way partnership, he suggested the required feasibility and environment studies be funded by the city and Navy while other expenses, such as infrastructure improvements, be covered by the port.

The junior taxing district would then turn around and sub-lease the property back to Nichols Brothers, shepherding in a deal that would bring an estimated 100 jobs to Oak Harbor. It will help ensure that the shipbuilder’s continued presence on Whidbey Island.

Tapert made it clear he was just presenting an idea, as he had not yet discussed it with his fellow board members. However, the rogue commissioner said in a later interview that the clock is ticking and that if something isn’t done right away the opportunity may just slip by.

“If this doesn’t happen soon, it won’t happen at all,” Tapert said.

Nichols Brothers is looking to build sections of a 144-car state ferry next spring but doesn’t have enough space at it’s existing yard in Freeland. Wanting to stay on Whidbey Island, the company has had its eye on the Seaplane Base’s parking lots and boat launch.

But the shipbuilder’s hopes have been taking on water from the beginning. The Navy is requiring a handful of studies be performed, the first of which would examine the general feasibility of the site, and neither entity is willing to foot the bill.

Efforts to secure funding from county sources have been unsuccessful and the prospect of Nichols Brothers in Oak Harbor was beginning to look grim. New hope was born late last month when, lured by the prospect of a 100 new jobs and the not-too-subtle urging of Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Director Jill Johnson, the city council began looking at ways of paying for the feasibility study with money from its own coffers.

But it’s no simple matter. State law is pretty strict when it comes to assisting private industry with public tax dollars and the city council has been wrestling with a legal way to fund the study.

In their latest discussion Tuesday, the council was considering a proposal that would have empowered the mayor to spend up to $40,000 on a broader study of the entire Seaplane Base.

Although time is of the essence, no contract was presented and that made Tapert’s proposal more than timely. Increasing its appeal is the fact that ports are afforded considerable more latitude when it comes to spending public funds on private business, as their primary function in one of economic development.

According to Tapert, it’s also clear that the port district can make investments outside its own  boundaries. They recently looked into developing a parking lot in Mukilteo and the port’s attorneys researched the issue thoroughly, he said.

While no deal was struck Tuesday night, the idea sparked a lot of interest on the city council and Tapert promised to discuss the matter with the rest of his board as soon as possible. Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik is equally excited.

He’s been trying to hammer out a deal between Nichols and the Navy for months, and with political rival and mayoral challenger Scott Dudley hotly criticizing him at every turn for a lack of results, Slowik has jumped on the possible solution.

Following a conversation he had Monday with port Commissioner Curt Gordon, Slowik said there is definitely support on the port’s board for a possible partnership. He has another meeting with the port’s financial director scheduled for later this week.

Despite the time crunch, and the complexity of such a deal, Slowik said he’s more than optimistic that an agreement can be reached. Some of the details may not be exactly as Tapert suggested, but a partnership is a very real possibility.

“I don’t think anybody thinks it’s farfetched; we’re working towards an agreement here,” Slowik said.

However, a lot will depend on Nichols Brothers and Slowik said Monday he had not yet spoken with company officials. Attempts to reach CEO John Collins for this story were unsuccessful.


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