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Oak Harbor mayor promotes Nichols Brothers expansion into city
Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is looking to expand its operations with a second boatyard in Oak Harbor.
The Freeland company, one of the largest private employers on Whidbey Island, is considering a vacant waterfront property on the Navy’s Seaplane base. Nichols Brothers needs a large work area and access to deep water to pursue contracts for larger boat-building projects.
The proposal could mean 100 jobs and a new industry for the city, which has a healthy population of educated and skilled workers due to the presence of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
“They are talking about 100 skilled-labor jobs. These are good-paying jobs,” Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said. “It’s hard to bring good jobs to the community in these difficult times.”
Slowik and Ron Nelson, director of the Island County Economic Development Council, have been scrambling to woo company officials and to help them with their possible expansion since learning of the proposal. Slowik announced the boat builders’ plans during a meeting of the Island County Council of Governments Wednesday and asked for money to fund a federal environmental study.
The project’s main hurdle, Slowik said, is securing Navy permission to lease the unused property. Getting the go-ahead will require a major study and buy-in from regional Navy officials, he said.
“We’d absolutely need to have the Navy’s cooperation on this, and at this point, we don’t have it,” he said.
Kim Martin, base spokesperson, said the Navy has a policy of encouraging the use of vacant property on bases through an “enhanced use lease.”
“Any time we have the opportunity to leverage under-utilized facilities, it’s a good thing. It can benefit the Navy and the community,” she said.
In this case, she said Navy officials realize that the new jobs would help the city’s economy, as well as provide employment to Navy spouses and Navy retirees who have a lot of skills. Also, any payment from the lease — either monetary or in-kind — would remain at the Whidbey base.
“The Navy is just as interested as anyone else in making sure the proposal gets considered,” she said.
Still, Martin said a lot of issues must be looked at as part of the federal environmental study. The Seaplane Base is a historic district and the area has a historic “view shed,” so the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation will be involved. Also, fishermen and Navy personnel use the ramps, which were built for seaplanes.
She said the study will likely take about a year. After that, the lease would be opened up to competitive bids and there’s a possibility Nichols Brothers wouldn’t win.
John Collins, CEO of Nichols Brothers, gave the commanding officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station a tour of the Freeland boatyard Wednesday afternoon.
Collins acknowledged Wednesday morning 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.
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.
Collins said that talk of expanding beyond Freeland started 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, involved 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.
Company officials said a new location needs to be nailed down by spring 2012.
The site the boatyard is looking at in Oak Harbor is located next to the Navy Exchange. Temporary structures, just as job trailers and portable awnings, would be brought on site. Construction would likely be limited to public utilities, stormwater controls and any necessary repairs to the ramp.
Slowik asked the Council of Governments, a conglomeration of elected officials, to pay for the necessary environmental study with $50,000 from the Island County’s Rural County Economic Developments Fund. The group is set to discuss it at the July 27 meeting, but a couple of members already expressed concerns about whether it would be an appropriate use of the funds.
Yet Jill Johnson, Oak Harbor Chamber director, said she only sees an upside to the plans, though she hopes city officials will ensure that sales taxes from boats are collected in the city as the “point of sale.”
“It’s an exciting opportunity for us to use some underutilized waterfront and bring additional good-paying jobs to the city,” she said. “Nichols Brothers has a tradition of being a strong community partner and businesses like that bring value to the community.”
South Whidbey Record Editor Brian Kelly contributed to the story.