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Nichols Brothers unveils plan for future of Freeland shipyard

Nichols Brothers CEO John Collins, with a catamaran ferry being worked on in the background under one of the company’s new portable shelters. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Nichols Brothers CEO John Collins, with a catamaran ferry being worked on in the background under one of the company’s new portable shelters.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is ready to go after its long-awaited master-plan permit from the county, but first it wants to hear from the neighbors.

“This is a very sensitive area for everybody,” John Collins, chief executive of the Freeland company, said Thursday. “We’re looking for input. We just want to put our best foot forward.”

The company has called a public meeting for the second week in March to outline its proposal. The meeting will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 11 at Freeland Hall, Freeland Avenue and Shoreview Drive.

“We’re not going in to try to sell anybody on it,” Collins said. “We’ll just be telling them what we’re trying to do and why. We hope the feedback will give us some guidance.”

The application is for a “consolidation permit” from Island County which would allow the firm to move forward through the years with projects within the permit’s parameters without obtaining individual permission.

Currently, the company is required to seek individual permits from one or more of as many as 15 local, state and federal categories if it wants to make a change.

Collins called the company’s plan for the future “a realistic approach” that balances the need to make a profit with being a conscientious neighbor.

He said the plan focuses on rearranging facilities in the yard to increase efficiency, gaining permanent use of its new tall portable weather covers and lengthening the workday three hours to accommodate two shifts.

It also would involve landscaping inside and outside the yard to enhance the scenery and to cut down on noise, expanding parking and upgrading its stormwater system.

There would be no expansion beyond the company’s current boundaries, Collins emphasized. He said the firm’s sole intent is to use its facilities more efficiently to prosper in a highly competitive business.

“We need to be moving quickly toward finding common ground to do what we want to do, while at the same time being sensitive to everybody’s needs,” Collins said.

About five years ago, the company applied to the county for a similar permit, then withdrew the application “for a number of reasons,” Collins said, among them an outcry from the neighbors.

Collins said that that attempt had detailed projects 10 to 15 years out, and “obviously wasn’t going to fly.”

“It wasn’t realistic or community sensitive,” he said.

As for the specifics of the new plan, Collins said the company intends to make the boatyard more efficient by reconfiguring its layout, modestly increasing its fabrication slab and enclosing painting and sandblasting operations.

“We’re not proposing to enlarge outside our current boarders,” Collins said. “We want to be sustainable within our existing footprint.”

Another focus of the company’s plan is to be able to use its tall weather covers permanently. Nichols Brothers bought the shelters with $841,000 in federal stimulus money that was awarded this past August.

The eight portable structures are 53 feet tall and are erected over specific operations in the yard as needed to protect workers from the weather and to reduce noise, Collins said.

The company is using the shelters under a variance issued by the county this past fall. The firm’s existing height limit for structures is 48 feet, Collins said.

He said there are no plans to obtain more of the shelters, or to obtain larger ones.

“We think we have enough covers,” Collins said. “We move them as we need them.”

He said that the company is restricted in the size of vessels it can build by the boatyard’s location and geography, for example the depth of Holmes Harbor.

“We don’t have the ability to launch just anything,” Collins said. “You’re not going to see an oil tanker in our yard.”

As for the workday, the company eventually wants to expand it by three hours to accommodate two shifts.

Collins said the new 17-hour workday would be from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The current workday is 13 hours, six days per week.

Collins said that unspecified “quiet” hours would be observed, probably early in the morning and late at night, during which the louder aspects of boatbuilding would be kept to a minimum.

He said the new hours would increase production “while being sensitive to the need for reasonable quiet time.”

Collins said that because most of the company’s competitors work around the clock every day, “We’re trying to utilize our resources as efficiently as we can.”

He said Nichols Brothers rejected a 24-7 workweek.

“That just wouldn’t fly,” he said.

He said moving to two shifts also holds out the possibility of increasing the workforce while avoiding an overcrowded “ants on an anthill” working situation, which he called “unsafe and unproductive.”

Nichols Brothers has rebounded from bankruptcy in 2008 after being purchased by Ice Floe, headquartered in Texas.

It has obtained a steady flow of contracts to build large tugboats and catamaran ferries, along with refitting and maintenance work.

It also is a subcontractor with Todd Pacific Shipyard to build three 64-car ferries for the state of Washington. Nichols Brothers has completed and shipped the superstructure of the first vessel, and has begun work on the second.

A fourth ferry for the state may also be ordered from the two companies.

The steady workflow has allowed the firm to increase its workforce to 167 so far this year, and more hires may be on the way, Collins said.

Last month, Nichols Brothers submitted its original application for a consolidation permit to the county, but the county sent it back, recommending some changes, including holding a public meeting prior to reapplying.

Collins said the company had planned to have a public meeting after the permit application was submitted, but on reflection decided the county’s way was best.

“We’re looking for a reasonable compromise that allows us to be competitive while at the same time being sensitive to concerns,” Collins said.

Bobak Talebi of the Island County planning department, who has been working closely with Nichols Brothers in the permit process, praised the company’s efforts and intent.

“This gives us a good understanding of where they want to go,” Talebi said. “They’ve really put forth a good effort.”

“But we wanted to make sure they’re making an effort to involve the community,” he added.

For information about the March meeting, call 331-5500, ext. 271, or e-mail bjaksa@nicholsboats.com.

Community Events, April 2014

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