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New project at Nichols Brothers is super

Matt Nichols, CEO of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, demonstrates his welding skills on a portion of the state’s new 144-car ferry. The shipyard will be building the vessel’s superstructure. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Matt Nichols, CEO of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, demonstrates his welding skills on a portion of the state’s new 144-car ferry. The shipyard will be building the vessel’s superstructure.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

FREELAND — Nichols Brothers Boat Builders has begun work on its portion of the state’s new 144-car ferry.

The hull of the 362-foot vessel is being constructed by Vigor Industrial in Seattle while Nichols Brothers has been contracted to build the superstructure. The work is expected to keep the Freeland shipbuilder busy for the next 12 months and create about 100 new jobs on South Whidbey.

Construction of the new ferry is expected to run $115 million, though the total price tag for the vessel is $147 million. According to a Washington State Ferries new release, the additional costs include owner-furnished equipment, construction management and contingencies.

Nichols Brothers said its portion of the contract tabs out to about $17 million, putting this among the top 10 biggest projects the local shipyard has taken on since it’s humble beginnings in Oregon more than 70 years ago.

“It’s going to be a huge boon for the area,” CEO Matt Nichols said.

Ron Nelson, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, agrees. The 100 new jobs will put the yard’s employment level at about 265 workers, which will make Nichols Brothers the largest private employer headquartered in the county.

The $17 million the job will pull in also means a lot for Whidbey Island’s overall economy, as a good portion of all those paychecks will be spent at local businesses, ranging from health care professionals to grocers.

“It is significant indeed,” Nelson said.

“Having Nichols here is absolutely vital to the economy,” he said.

According to Matt Nichols, it’s likely their employment numbers will hold steady for the foreseeable future. Along with a handful of projects currently under way at the shipyard, and two new contracts that are still in the hopper, the state Legislature recently approved the construction of a second 144-car ferry as well.

While it must go through the formal bidding process, there is a good chance that Vigor and Nichols Brothers will land that contract, adding another year’s worth of job security for the Freeland yard. By law, Washington ferries must be built in Washington.

“We’ll be busting at the seams,” Nichols said of the coming workload.

Vigor and Nichols Brothers worked together to build all three of the  state’s new Kwa-di Tabil class 64-car ferries, the last of which entered service in January. They include the Chetzemoka, Salish and Kennewick.

District 10 Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said she never had any doubt that the second 144-car ferry would also be approved.

“I said we’d get the second 144 and we did,” Haugen said.

The powerful lawmaker said she was glad that Nichols Brothers has been able to work on the new ferries, saying she knows how important those jobs are to the South End. Also, while no decisions have been made, Haugen said she expects one of the two new ferries to serve on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo ferry route.

“I’m sure with two of them, one will be there,” Haugen said.

It would replace one of the two aging Issaquah class vessels, the Cathlamet and Kittitas, that currently sail the route.

Nichols said he hopes to see one of the boats serving the local community as well. He also said Haugen’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. He credited her with making all five of the state’s new ferries a reality.

“She’s been our guardian angel in Olympia,” Nichols said.

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