Oak Harbor City Council considers funding Nichols Brothers study

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jill Johnson addresses the Oak Harbor City Council earlier this month about funding a study that could help bring a Freeland shipyard to the Seaplane Base. This week, the council agreed to look at a study more closely. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jill Johnson addresses the Oak Harbor City Council earlier this month about funding a study that could help bring a Freeland shipyard to the Seaplane Base. This week, the council agreed to look at a study more closely.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

There may yet be hope for a plan that would help Freeland-based Nichols Brothers Boat Builders set up shop in Oak Harbor.

On Tuesday, the Oak Harbor City Council directed staff to start developing a scope of work for a taxpayer-funded feasibility study of the Seaplane Base. While a lot still needs to happen before the study becomes a reality, the hope is that it will help the Whidbey shipyard open a satellite facility and bring about 100 new jobs to the community.

Nichols is looking to expand its operations so it can work on larger boats, such as a new 144-car ferry for the state. Company leaders have been in negotiations with the city and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station officials to use the vacant parking lots and boat launches behind the Navy Exchange, but talks had reached a stalemate.

The Seaplane Base is within city limits, but the property is owned by the Navy and it won’t consider the possibility until a feasibility study is performed. Estimated at about $40,000, the Navy is also refusing to foot the bill, as is Nichols. Several county funding sources have also been sought only to be deemed impossible.

It seemed the prospect of the new facility, and all those new jobs, was all but sunk. However, earlier this month Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jill Johnson beseeched the city council to take a more proactive approach.

“I’m obsessed with the Nichols Brothers situation and the jobs it can create,” Johnson said.

She criticized all the major players involved — the Navy, Nichols Brothers, the city,  Island County Economic Development Council and the Council of Governments — for not making the study happen sooner. If all five parties cooperated, each could chip in $8,000 to cover the cost of the $40,000 study.

She also put pressure on key Oak Harbor elected officials, pointing out their affiliations or positions on various boards and groups. Mayor Jim Slowik is a member of the Council of Governments, City Councilman Scott Dudley is on the Economic Develop Council’s board of directors, and City Councilwoman Beth Munns is married to a former commanding officer of the base.

“Who’s left? Nichols. They have the most to gain and for crying out loud someone just needs to make a phone call,” Johnson said.

Slowik did ask the Council of Governments — a group made up of elected leaders from the county, municipalities and port districts — to fund the study months ago, but county legal experts said such an expenditure would violate state law.

Later in the meeting, Dudley followed Johnson’s lead and asked that the proposal be discussed at this week’s council meeting. The intervening two weeks proved useful as it gave city staff time to look at the issue more closely.

At this week’s meeting, Finance Director Doug Merriman warned the council that funding a study solely for the Freeland shipyard would be a gift of public funds, which is a violation of state law. However, he suggested a broader study that would look at the economic development potential of the whole Seaplane Base.

“That avoids paying for a single entity,” Merriman said.

The council agreed to move forward with the plan, directing city staff to come back next month with a specific scope of work. The council could then vote to scrub the project or send it out to bid, voting at a later date to award a contract.

While the possibilities have many excited that this will get the ball rolling and lead to the shipyard coming to Oak Harbor, it’s no guarantee for success, said Ron Nelson, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council.

“The wild card here is still the Navy,” he said.

According to Nelson, the Navy has a range of concerns, from return on investment and aesthetics to impact on the environment. If a study is performed, and it yielded favorable results, there is still nothing that requires the Navy to play ball.

When asked for comment, base commanding officer Capt. Jay Johnston responded with the following statement: “NAS Whidbey Island is always open to examining opportunities such as the Enhanced Use Lease program that will allow private use of under-utilized government property in return for in kind compensation. NAS Whidbey Island has been working with the Island County Economic Development Council and the City of Oak Harbor regarding their inquiry into the potential use of Navy property on the Seaplane Base. At this time, it would be premature to comment on these discussions.”

Slowik, in a past interview, said he had met with Johnson and another high-level Navy official and that both are supportive of Nichols coming to town. But certain steps need to be taken and it could take time, he said.

As for the chamber director, Johnson said she was proud of the city for taking steps toward making the feasibility study a reality. In the midst of an economic recession, job creation should be the top priority of all elected officials, she said.

She also expressed hope that the Navy will help the project along. Over the years, city and base leaders have worked hard to foster a positive relationship based on mutual support and partnership. It’s resulted in a concept often referred to as “Team Whidbey.”

“My hope is the Navy will embrace the true definition of partnership and the spirit behind Team Whidbey,” Johnson said.


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