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Nichols Brothers Boat Builders looks at expanding to Oak Harbor

COUPEVILLE — Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is looking at expanding its operations into Oak Harbor.

The Freeland boatyard wants to have a larger role in building ferries for Washington state, and is seeking a second location that could result in an additional 100 jobs for the company, Island County officials said Wednesday.

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik gave a brief overview of the company's proposal at the Island County Council of Governments meeting. He said Nichols Brothers wants to use portions of the Navy's Seaplane Base for a new shipbuilding yard near the existing seaplane ramps that would give easy access to the deep waters of Crescent Harbor.

No new construction would be needed at the seaplane base. Temporary structures would be used to handle manufacturing operations.

"They are determined to bid on the new ferries," Slowik said.

Slowik said Nichols Brothers is interested in leasing land from the Navy, but discussions are in the early stages and company officials are also considering locations in Everett and Bellingham.

Officials stressed the added location would not impact the Freeland yard.

"This is not downscaling operations in Freeland," Slowik said. "It is simply giving them the ability to build the larger boats."

The commander of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is expected to tour the Freeland boatyard today. Slowik said Nichols Brothers is facing a tight timeline of finding a place to expand its business so it can bid on impending projects.

"There's a tight timeline with Nichols Brothers," Slowik said.

Slowik said Oak Harbor hopes to get $50,000 in rural economic development funds to pay for an environmental assessment of using part of the Seaplane Base as a boatbuilding yard.

The Navy has not yet said if it supports the project.

"We'd absolutely need to have the Navy's cooperation on this, and at this point, we don't have it," Slowik said.

Improvements needed to handle ship-building activities are largely limited to utility work, stormwater control and repairs to the existing concrete ramps. Officials said the location for the shipyard would be far enough away from homes to limit any noise impacts.

John Collins, CEO of Nichols Brothers, said Wednesday that talk of expanding beyond Freeland started last March when the company was concerned it would need more space if it landed the contract to build the Navy's T-Craft.

The project, led by the Office of Naval Research, involves creating a prototype amphibious vessel that can transport tanks and other gear from ships to the shore. Nichols Brothers had previously built the X-Craft, an experimental catamaran called the Sea Fighter.

"That boat did not get funded by the Navy," Collins recalled, but noted the company has continued to consider expanding its operations as the business evolves.

If Nichols expands its operations to the Oak Harbor Navy base, the Freeland boatyard will not be impacted, Collins said.

"It's not meant as an alternative to being here. This is specifically being driven by the next series of Washington State Ferries' work that we've been bidding on," Collins said.

A 144-car ferry has been funded by the state, and Nichols is bidding on a portion of the work. As a subcontractor to Todd Pacific Shipyards, now Vigor Shipyards, the Freeland boatyard has helped build the state's newest Kwa-di Tabil-class ferries, the M/V Chetzemoka, the M/V Salish and the Kennewick.

"We're looking for more space to be able to to do that work, and do it in a way to allow this yard to not be hampered space-wise by that superstructure," Collins explained.

The company will need more room to work on the 144-car vessel.

"The superstructure is going to be much bigger than the 64-car ferries," Collins said.

Collins acknowledged that the company has talked about other locations for the expansion — Everett, Bellingham and Seattle — but the focus is largely on Oak Harbor. Some employers currently commute from Oak Harbor and Coupeville to the Freeland yard.

"We think it's to our advantage to stay on-island; that's going to be our first priority," he said.

Company officials said a new location needs to be nailed down by spring 2012.

Collins emphasized the company was looking at expanding, and not moving from Freeland.

"We have a substantial investment in this site, and we don't have any intention to move from this site," Collins said, adding that the company has been more than $1 million on upgrades to its stormwater treatment system.

"This location is very important to us, it's very important to the community. This additional space up at Oak Harbor is for overflow, and like I said is specifically tied to the potential for more work coming through Washington State Ferries," he said.

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