Nichols goes after new ferry contracts

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is preparing a bid to construct a portion of two more 64-car ferries with an option for a third.

If the Freeland firm wins the job, it could lead to a near doubling of the workforce in the fall, if all else falls into place, said Matt Nichols, managing director for business development.

“We could be adding 100 extra jobs,” Nichols said. “But we can’t count on it until it happens.”

The Freeland firm is already working on one 64-car ferry for the state of Washington, a $65 million project it’s sharing with Todd Pacific Shipyard of Seattle.

Nichols Brothers is about 10 percent finished with its portion of the first ferry, Nichols said. Delivery is expected next year. The vessel will go to the Keystone-Port Townsend route.

Meanwhile, the state has called for bids on two additional vessels, and a possible third. The contract is expected to be awarded in October, with construction to begin in November.

Nichols Brothers again will join with Todd Shipyard to submit a bid.

“We’d get moving on hiring right away if we get the job,” Nichols said. “Timely delivery is very important to the state.”

Nichols is optimistic that his company will win the new ferry contract, since it’s already building a similar vessel under a contract shared with Todd. Also in the firm’s favor is that the state requires the ferries be built in Washington.

“That just leaves us and a couple of other yards,” Nichols said. “We’ve already done all the preliminary work with the first ferry. Hopefully, we’ve learned some lessons and can bring the price down.”

Nichols said local lawmakers, including Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, are in the Freeland shipyard’s corner.

“They want to see a lot of those jobs land right here on Whidbey Island,” he said.

As with the current contract, Nichols Brothers would build the top section of each new vessel, including the entire passenger deck and galley, and the pilot houses and machinery compartments for the heating and air-conditioning systems.

Haugen predicted earlier this year that the building of each new ferry would pump $10 million into the island economy.

Meanwhile, the boatyard is working its way through several other projects, and is awaiting financing word on a barge contract that would be worth $25 million.

Nichols Brothers hopes to get backing from the Import-Export Bank for the five barges, each of which would cost $5 million. The barges would be used in a Panama Canal dredging project.

Word on Import-Export financing is expected any time, Nichols said.

“I’d say we have a 50-50 chance,” he said.

Besides the 64-car ferry, the company also is working on the fifth in a series of $10-million large tugboats, this one for California’s Bay Area.

San Francisco’s BayDelta Marine has also said it may order two additional tugs, Nichols said.

Nichols Brothers also recently delivered the second of four twin-hulled passenger ferries being built for the San Francisco Bay Area’s Water Emergency Transit Authority.

Two more of the $8.8 million, 116-foot catamarans are on order, and are expected to be delivered late next year. A deal for two additional catamarans is being discussed, Nichols said.

If the new contracts come through, they would certainly bolster the job picture on the South End, he said.

Last fall, 30 Nichols employees were laid off when it lost a contract to build a new ferry for a California buyer. The company currently employs about 150.

Money is the key to the barge contract.

“We’ve got the capacity and the capability,” Nichols said. “We just need somebody to guarantee it and get things going.”

“These days you have to dot so many I’s and cross so many T’s. Right now we’re a few I’s and T’s short,” he added. “With all the stimulus packages going out, we could use the help.”

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