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Dock Renovation Approved at $39 Million, While Council Debates Matson Contract

Annie Ropeik/KUCB

Unalaska’s city dock is about to get a major makeover.

The City Council approved a $39 million renovation Tuesday night, authorizing top bidder Turnagain Marine Construction to replace two aging docks at the Unalaska Marine Center. 

The unanimous decision marked a significant turnaround from last month, when the project nearly stalled after years of planning. Councilors split over selling city bonds to finance the expensive renovation, forcing Mayor Frank Kelty to break the tie.

Councilor Rachelle Hatfield voted against the bond sale originally, but she said the final budget proposal changed her mind.

“My concern with this project was obviously the cost and how we were going to repay it," said Hatfield. "I scrutinized the numbers. I looked at them inside and out, I even dreamt of numbers, and I am satisfied the city -- specifically ports -- can pay that bill."

Port savings will cover 25 percent of the cost, while bond investors pick up the rest of the tab. City officials have said they'll pay back that money over the next 25 years.

During public comments, Bill Shaisnakoff argued Unalaska will never get a better deal. He said the upgrade will also help the city cash in on increased shipping traffic through the Bering Sea.  

“We are the Singapore of the West," said Shaisnakoff. "The potential we have to make that dock new and right gives us the ability to attract and retain the freight [business] coming through. The ability to diversify in conjunction with the fisheries puts us in much more stable condition.”

With the renovation settled, the council reopened a contentious debate on dock usage -- namely, whether to renew Matson’s preferential use agreement.

The private shipping company has long had first dibs on a section of the city dock, but its formal agreement expired four years ago. Matson and the city have since relied on a verbal contract, after the renewal was delayed by tariff negotiations.

Matson official Marion Davis said the company is getting “impatient.”

He told the council that Matson deserves a new contract, especially because it owns the container crane on the city dock and provides Unalaska with weekly barge service for mail and groceries.

“We’re an anchor tenant, and we’d like to keep it that way," said Davis. "There should be some type of quid pro quo here. We offer a lot, and we should get something better than the suggestion that we pay premium rates just to come here.”

While several councilors expressed support for Matson, City Manager Dave Martinson recommended an open bidding process. That way, he said, any company can apply for a preferential spot on the dock.

Former councilor Dennis Robinson agreed. During public comments, he said Matson may be a devoted customer, but Unalaska should consider all offers.

“Make it equal for everybody," said Robinson. "The City Council has to put the city’s assets to the highest and best use available. You can’t make special deals, because you will be taken to task on it.”

Councilors didn’t vote on the issue Tuesday night, but Mayor Kelty said they’ll continue the conversation at future meetings.

Meanwhile, the council took its first look at the city budget proposal for fiscal year 2018.

The $33 million financial plan calls for about $500,000 more than this year. Martinson said the hike is largely a result of adding three positions to the Department of Public Safety and purchasing a new grader for road maintenance.

The city will refine its budget over the next two months. That process starts Wednesday, when the City Council meets with local nonprofits applying for community support grants.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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