Ketchikan shipyard business grows

Elwood Brehmer/AJOC

KETCHIKAN — The development of Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan has been more than 30 years in the works.

“What we’re doing today is what they proposed clear back in 1981,” company Shipyard Development Director Doug Ward said.

Ward has been with Alaska Ship and Drydock, or ASD, since its inception in 1994 and also serves as the resident site historian.

In 1981, the State of Alaska released its site development plan for what is now ASD on the northern edge of Ketchikan.  At the time, the state Department of Transportation was in search of a hub for year-round maintenance of the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries, Ward said.

As a result, $54 million was appropriated to develop the shipyard. Of that, $38 million went in to building the first dry dock, he said. When the yard opened in 1987, it had the single dry dock capable of handling the largest of the system’s ferries, 1,000 feet of dock facing and one large shop building.

“No restrooms, no indoor plumbing — nothing,” Ward said of the site’s amenities at the time.

What a difference a quarter century makes.

Today ASD boasts two dry docks; a towering assembly hall, which has become a landmark of sorts in Ketchikan; an operations center; and a modular fabrication hall that is under construction. Plans for another five-plus story repair hall are awaiting the $30 million needed for construction. In all, more than $130 million will have been invested in the 16-acre property.

The modular fabrication hall should be done by this fall.

Because the site is owned by the state Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, any infrastructure development relies on public funding. After the initial development through the 1980s, funding began flowing for the shipyard site in the form of $25 million of federal economic disaster relief after the wood pulp mill in nearby Ward Cove closed in 1997.

The idea for ASD came about in 1993. It was to be a winter repair yard for the state ferries and in summer to help maintain the Ketchikan Pulp Corp. mill. When the mill closed the disaster relief money became available.

In 1999, ASD partnered with Norwegian shipyard builder Kvaerner Masa to design what the yard has become today, Ward said. It was originally meant to be a centralized location for all state ferry activity.

“From the beginning this project has always been an economic development plan for the State of Alaska, and I think that’s important to note,” Ward said.

AIDEA’s ownership of the property makes any investment in it an addition to the state’s portfolio, he said.

Ward said sites throughout Alaska were looked at in 1999 but ASD was chosen partly because of its proximity to resources in the Pacific Northwest, along with its temperate winter climate.

Portland, Ore.-based Vigor Industrial purchased ASD in February 2012. Vigor operates seven shipyards throughout the Pacific Northwest including ASD. While ASD still operates under its original name, Vigor provides it with financial stability and a workforce of some 2,000 professionals.

Ward said prior to Vigor’s involvement, ASD had roughly 120 full-time employees. Since early 2012 that number has grown to 160. Of those, 98 percent are Ketchikan residents.

In late, April Sen. Lisa Murkowski toured the shipyard with ASD President Adam Beck.

He told the senator that with the expansion in infrastructure and new project opportunities on the horizon, ASD is looking to double its workforce to nearly 350 in the next two years.

“Vigor being a non-Alaskan company and acquiring ASD from a local employer, people were rightfully concerned,” Beck said. “But it’s a win-win for us to hire local folks.”

He said Ketchikan’s nature as an isolated community means hiring locally provides a certain assurance that the employees understand what life in the city is like and won’t leave after a short time.

Ward said the growth ASD hopes to achieve in the near future would return the area’s wage base back to where it was before the pulp mill closed and nearly 500 jobs were lost.

Beck worked for ASD from 2000 to 2005, he said, before he began working with Vigor in Seattle. He now runs four of Vigor’s shipyards and his connection with ASD made him a perfect fit to oversee the Ketchikan operation.

ASD is trying to find schools to help train the employees it hopes to hire soon, Beck told Murkowski. He added that ASD has provided equipment and supplies to train some of its current employees, but will need help to expand training.

“We’re willing to partner with any education establishment that’s willing to partner with us. The challenge is that we want people who are ready to put boots on the ground,” he said. “It’s time to put wire to steel and pliers in hand and train workers.”

From the upper level of Alaska Ship and Drydock’s five-story assembly hall, Sen. Lisa Murkowski looks down upon the longliner F/V Arctic Prowler now under construction with ASD’s Adam Beck and Doug Ward. (Elwood Brehmer photo)

Ships in the works

In addition to maintaining Alaska’s ferry fleet, ASD is finishing construction of the first large fishing vessel ever built in Alaska to fish Alaska waters. The 136-foot longline vessel the F/V Arctic Prowler is in the assembly hall. The vessel will be owned by Alaska Longline Co. of Petersburg and will fish cod, sablefish and turbot in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

The $20 million-plus Arctic Prowler is expected to hit water sometime later this summer, said ASD Project Manager Carl Smith.

Designs for two “Alaska-class” day ferries are in the works. Alaska Marine Highway System General Manager Capt. John Falvey has said he hopes the vessels can be built in Ketchikan. Beck said the competitive bid process on the $118 million project should be completed by this fall.

“We hope to be building (the ferries) sometime in the first quarter of 2014 if we’re able to successfully win the bid,” Beck said.

Previous state ferries have been built in shipyards across the country. None have been built in Alaska.

Vigor is also in the bidding process for a major Coast Guard contract that would involve multiple shipyards including ASD. The Coast Guard is interested in building over two-dozen offshore patrol cutter vessels, Vigor Vice President of Government Affairs Fred Kiga said.

“$10 billion, 25 ships, over 15 years,” Kiga told Murkowski.

Modular portions of those ships would be built in Ketchikan if Vigor were to win the bid, Beck said. Vigor officials are confident their hull design, one similar to a design already used in oil support services in Europe’s North Sea, will be picked from 13 bidders as one of three potential designs.

Beck said the long-term Coast Guard project would assure a return on investment for future training and infrastructure development by Vigor. He added that even if the Coast Guard work is not secured, ASD has received seven requests for proposals, or RFPs, for other ship-build projects in the past year.

ASD’s Ward said building the now idle M/V Susitna for the Navy is a source of pride for ASD even though its inactive status has led to criticism of the ferry as a boondoggle.

“The M/V Susitna, as a Naval prototype, is an absolute success,” he said.

He said Naval officials were impressed after testing the ship, and with its capabilities and the quality of its construction. Most prototypes are destined to be scrapped, Ward said. The fact that the Susitna will probably find use somewhere is a win.

“The fact that (the Susitna) isn’t in operation doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success,” he said. “It drove innovation into Alaska.”


Elwood Brehmer can be reached at el[email protected].

06/06/2013 - 6:53am