Platinum airport project moving quickly with CDQ assist

A collaborative effort between a Western Alaska fishing group and the State of Alaska is improving infrastructure and hopefully economic opportunity in the region.

The airport at the village of Platinum currently has a 3,300-foot gravel runway, which is used extensively by the Coastal Villages Region Fund to move frozen salmon and halibut to market. When the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Utilities completes its work, the runway will be 5,000 feet long.

“We’re helping them extend the runway for the purpose of flying fresh fish out,” Coastal Villages spokesman Dawson Hoover said.

Platinum is a fishing village of about 60 permanent residents on the edge of the Bering Sea just north of Bristol Bay.

Coastal Villages purchased the land needed to extend the runway from a resident of Platinum and donated it to DOT, along with paying for necessary surveying and appraisal fees, DOT Deputy Commissioner Steve Hatter wrote.

Coastal Villages Region Fund was formed to be a managing body for pollock, cod, halibut and crab fishing quotas, among multiple species, allocated to eligible communities as a part of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Community Development Quota program. The six groups representing 65 Western Alaska villages receive 10.7 percent of the various annual harvests.

The program is meant to provide economic development through commercial fishing to coastal Alaska communities. Coastal Villages is comprised of 20 Yukon-Kuskokwim region villages.

Hoover said the Goodnews Bay Seafood Processing Plant in Platinum provides about 225 peak-season jobs and can process up to 150,000 pounds of salmon and halibut per day. The longer runway will allow for larger planes, such as the Hercules C-130, to haul higher demand fresh fish out of Platinum, which brings a better return.

“It will help overall in hopefully increasing the price of salmon in the long run,” Hoover said.

He said the plant employs about 90 percent Alaskans, as opposed to other fish processors that often hire a majority of their workforce from Outside.

“The plant benefits hundreds if not over a thousand people in our region with jobs — commercial fishing for halibut, salmon and processing jobs; and they’re mostly Alaskans so it’s a big economic engine in the region,” Hoover said.

The $3.1 million in state money appropriated to the project was a part of the $453 million in general obligation bonds passed by Alaska voters last November.

Luke Bowland, DOT manager on the project, said bidding on the work should be completed in May and that Coastal Villages’ involvement has expedited work.

“The Coastal Villages Region Fund is really helping us out with the right-of-way acquisition part. It’s a big reason why we were able to start moving so quickly before we saw funds hit our account,” he said.

According to DOT, nearly 94 percent of funding for airports in Alaska comes from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program. That federal money has averaged $202 million over the last three years.

As is often the case with federal money, it comes with strings attached, Hatter explained.

“We actively seek community involvement, aviation user group input and demographic analysis to identify prospective capital projects,” he wrote to the Journal. “However, needs exceed resources, so many justified and locally supported projects either find themselves delayed, or go unfunded. DOT works with, and within, the FAA’s criteria as we develop our formula driven list and capital spending plan. Local community economic development is not a high priority driver for FAA grant allocation.”

The Platinum project is the first airport project in the state funded by general obligation bonds in more than 30 years, according to Hatter.

Hoover said the improved return on fresh halibut and salmon anticipated to come with the longer runway in Platinum should help regain some of the losses Coastal Villages has incurred from its salmon and halibut processing operations over the years. He said the group has offset the losses of $3 million to $5 million yearly with other fishing profits.

Coastal Villages’ pollock, crab and cod harvest total harvest sold for more than $90 million in 2011, according to Hoover.

“As it is right now for our salmon and halibut operations we have run in the red every year and we have been for the last 15 years,” Hoover said. “The only reason we’re able to operate the salmon and halibut commercial fishery there is our part in the pollock, crab and cod fishery that helps us subsidize our operation (in Platinum).”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/13/2013 - 11:17am