Spokelys moving quickly to rejuvenate Ward Cove site

Photos/Courtesy/Ward Cove Group

KETCHIKAN — When the father-and-son business partners Dave and Andrew Spokely bought the former Ketchikan Pulp Co. site north of the city in late 2011, they knew there was a lot of work to be done.

Other than buildings with a few leasing tenants, the 387-acre waterfront property had gone largely unmaintained since the pulp mill closed in 1997.

One of the first things they did was add Casey Havens, a businessman turned oyster farmer from Yakutat, to their team.

“Our main purpose for this last year was to make things functional,” said Havens, who holds the title of president and CEO of Ward Cove Group, the umbrella organization for the team’s 11 companies.

This spring, business activity worked around a pile of rubble that was once a main mill building. Havens said four barges worth of steel were pulled from the remains of the building and the left over concrete, brick and lumber would be cleaned up by the end of summer. Eventually, a boatyard will sit where the mill structure once stood, he said.

By taking advantage of the businesses the Spokelys owned prior to purchasing the $2.1 million property and the site’s working facilities, the Ward Cove team is already putting together a solid financial base on which to expand its operations.

Ward Cove startups are able to focus on growth rather than revenue in their infancy, Dave Spokely said.

“We look at what we do as a whole,” he said. “We understand that every business usually takes three years to become viable, so all businesses get fed for three years.

Their current Ward Cove operations employ a full-time staff of 15 that grows to about 20 during the summer, Havens said. By 2014, the hope is to more than double the year-round staff, he added.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is leasing some of the property’s 800-foot dock for its once-hopeful ferry vessel the M/V Susitna. Remaining dock space is rented out for barge repair.

Six other companies lease buildings or land from Ward Cove Properties. The Alaska Marine Highway System operates its headquarters from one of the Spokelys’ buildings.

The Spokelys also own Power Systems and Supplies of Alaska and Remote Made Easy. Combined, the companies offer fuel and logistics services to individuals and businesses alike in remote locations throughout Southeast Alaska.

Havens said Remote Made Easy has recently begun servicing the Kensington Gold Mine north of Juneau.

The two companies use 22- and 44-foot boats, the larger of which were designed by the Spokelys. After using the boats for several years and getting the design certified, Dave Spokely said a market has emerged for larger boats based on the same design. That opportunity led to one of the newest companies in the Ward Cove Group, Spokely Designs, which is just getting started.

Full Cycle LLC is a new venture that has taken off quickly, Havens said. It is the basis for a “truck stop” for ships that the Spokelys envisioned when they moved in.

“We have a whole series of services,” Havens said. “We’ll take your used oil if you need it changed, we’ll go in and empty your bilge and take that oily water — take bad fuel and shuttle your crew into town.”

Havens said they have even taken care of grocery lists for ships stopping for service.

What makes Full Cycle different goes beyond logistic services and back to another Dave Spokely design. The basis for the company is a one-of-a-kind system that filters dirty oil and fuel and separates oil and water.

The Full Cycle system can make old or dirty diesel usable again and turn used oil into No. 2 heating oil.

Rejuvenated fuel and oil are then held in tanker trucks until either being sold or pumped back on to a readied vessel. Those that would otherwise to go to Seattle for these services can now “stop and turn left” on their way south and stay in Alaska, Havens said.

Havens said the ability to handle petroleum has also started a working relationship with Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan because ships being dry-docked for repair cannot be holding oil or fuel. Through Full Cycle they have handled several hundred thousand gallons of oil and fuel for the shipyard, he said.

Dave Spokely said his education in aerospace engineering gave him a base of knowledge in fluid dynamics and ship design.

“Supersonic air acts like a fluid,” he said.

Farming Southeast style

The latest venture the Ward Cove team is entering into — mariculture, or shellfish farming — is a definite departure from the other services they offer. Alaska Natural Seafood Specialties is the name of the new company.

Through Alaska Natural Seafood the hope is to provide a sort of operations center for oyster and geoduck farming in Southeast.

A geoduck is a large clam native to Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. They are both farmed and commercially harvested throughout their range.

Kurtis Morin has operated a geoduck farm near Ketchikan for nearly 15 years. Before getting into geoducks, Morin worked as a shellfish harvester in Alaska since the late-1980s. Now he’s working with the Havens and the Spokelys on getting a geoduck and oyster hatchery and nursery off the ground.

“I know the mariculture industry can provide a lot of good-paying jobs in Southeast,” Morin said.

Morin said the challenge in starting a shellfish farm is the years a farmer has to wait for the first crop. Geoducks must grow for six years after being planted by hand by a diver before they can before they can be harvested. Oysters require at least a three-year growth span. Getting traditional financing for an operation that has such a long wait time for payback is nearly impossible, he said.

For farmers who manage to make it to their first harvest the reward can be big, Morin said. Farmed geoducks average about 1.5 pounds and sell for nearly $20 per pound, double what one of the wild clams sells for, he said. That is because the wild geoducks are often larger, tougher and have more shell weight.

Morin said he gets calls every day from people around the world wanting to buy his geoducks, but that his crops are already spoken for. Right now markets in Japan and China buy up all of the roughly 8 million-pound annual worldwide harvest, he added.

Morin said his recent harvests have been about 7,000 pounds per year, but they could be larger if more seed was available. He estimated a mature geoduck farming industry to be upwards of a $30 million boost to Southeast’s economy. When oysters are added, Havens said the total Alaska mariculture industry could be $60 million per year.

The other challenge with farming geoducks in Alaska is acquiring the seed, or immature geoducks, for planting, he said. Because they are native to Alaska waters it is illegal to import geoduck seeds from hatcheries in British Columbia or Washington.

Currently, Alaska’s roughly two-dozen geoduck farmers get their seed from a hatchery in Seward, Morin said, but there is demand for more. That seed is harvested from a small number of the clams set aside for the generation of future crops.

The Ward Cove team is prepping a small shed near the water to fill that demand void. Dave Spokely said a financing plan is in the works to fund the $300,000 in equipment and retrofits needed to complete a geoduck and oyster hatchery, nursery and research facility. He expects the work to be done by the end of the year, he said.

Because of the inherent difficulties shellfish farmers have, Dave Spokely said Alaska Natural Seafood is a long-term investment that will hopefully be a starting point for the Alaska mariculture industry to grow from.

“The industry itself is not just the farming,” he said. “It’s transportation, it’s storage, it’s marketing and it’s value added processing. So, we’re looking at that at the same time.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

06/13/2013 - 6:57am