Dino Rossi brings campaign for U.S. Senate to Freeland shipyard

U.S. Senate hopeful Dino Rossi takes a tour of Nichol Brothers Boat Builders on Thursday with Matt Nichols, managing  director for business development, and company CEO John Collins. At top, Rossi listens as Collins makes a pitch for more government help.  - Brian Kelly / The Record
U.S. Senate hopeful Dino Rossi takes a tour of Nichol Brothers Boat Builders on Thursday with Matt Nichols, managing director for business development, and company CEO John Collins. At top, Rossi listens as Collins makes a pitch for more government help.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

FREELAND — There were no complaints of “big government” here.

Dino Rossi rolled across Whidbey Island Thursday during his campaign to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

But Rossi, a Republican who has been critical of federal stimulus efforts to jump-start the economy, found a few fans for government assistance during his tour of Nicholas Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland.

His visit began and finished with a plea for more government help from John Collins, CEO of the shipyard.

Collins told Rossi of the company’s efforts to regroup after the shipyard went into bankruptcy in 2008.

The shipyard rebounded with the help of government-financed ferry projects from Washington and California. And this past August, Nichols Brothers received $841,000 in federal funding that paid for new equipment and large portable weather covers that helped the company expand operations.

“That, to me, is something that we worked really hard to be able to do,” Collins said. “The main issue that we have is, how do we continue to have support to make sure that continues, because jobs to this community and to this island are very important.”

The company had roughly 130 workers last April. It now has about 210. Another 20 who were laid off may be coming back in October.

“We’re over-exaggerating our point to say this, but we’ve added more jobs in the last year than Boeing did,” Collins said, adding that state and federal funding that has flowed to the shipbuilding industry has been critical. He also pointed out the shipyard’s success in building the X-Craft, an experimental Navy vessel that was launched in Freeland in 2005.

Collins said the company had hoped to get more government work, especially the job of building an advanced version of the X-Craft.

“We were very disappointed when that job was canceled in midstream because of funding. We didn’t see that coming,” Collins told Rossi.

The project would have been a 700,000-hour job, he said, something that would have kept 60 to 80 employees working for 30 months.

“That was the kind of thing that we need help with. We need a lot of help,” Collins said.

When asked if federal stimulus efforts had meant more jobs, Collins had a simple answer. “Absolutely.”

Rossi, who stopped in Freeland between visits to Arlington and Oak Harbor, said his trip to Whidbey was part of his efforts to meet with small business owners across the state.

“We’re meeting with small business owners in every community. I don’t care if they have two people in a gift shop, or hundreds of people in a manufacturing facility, [we’re] talking to them about what’s going on,” he said.

Rossi said the true scope of the unemployment rate was close to 17.4 percent.

“That’s like two out of 10 people you know aren’t making it for their families. And so the conversations we’re having, a lot of folks are they’re really concerned about, at least the business owners I’m talking to, they don’t know what their government is going to do to them next week,” he said.

“They don’t know what the healthcare is going to cost, they don’t know if the 2001-2002 tax cuts are going to be reauthorized. A lot of them are going, I don’t know if I can really buy this new equipment,” Rossi said.

Rossi said greater certainty was needed, as well as modest taxation and predictable regulations.

“That’s the way we are going to claw our way out of this unemployment problem, is for small businesses to be helped,” Rossi said.

Collins, however, said the shipyard has worked hard to fit with the community and the environment.

He highlighted the shipyard’s cutting-edge water treatment system, a million-dollar facility that cleans water more thoroughly than the system used by Freeland’s nearby water treatment system. Nichols Brothers can abide by the regulations set for the shipyard, he said.

“That’s a huge success story, for the industry and for this company,” Collins told Rossi. “We want to be a good neighbor to our friends here down the street from us, who don’t like to hear banging at 6 o’clock in the morning. We can live with that. We can find that balance.”

Collins said the company’s bankruptcy had a huge impact on the community, and it’s something Nichols Brothers never wants to repeat.

“We’ve got a company that we want to sustain. This company has been through some very hard times,” he said. “We want to make sure what happened two years ago never happens again.

“We’ve got to have work. We’ve got to have boats in the yard,” he said. “We need help from some kind of stimulus.”

That could be stimulus funding, Collins said, or more support for small businesses.

Rossi, who twice ran unsuccessfully for state governor, is making his first bid for Congress. He kicked off his campaign in May, and said Thursday he had piled up enough miles on his Ford Escape Hybrid to equal four trips to New York and back.

It won’t be smooth sailing all the way to Washington, D.C., though.

On Thursday, a new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters was released that put Murray in the lead at 51 percent, while Rossi had 46 percent.

A previous poll had put Rossi in front, but Rasmussen Reports said Washington is now leaning toward the incumbent Democrat.

Rossi wrapped up his visit to Whidbey with a stop at Krieg Construction, and then a tour of Krieg Concrete, in Oak Harbor.

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