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Nichols Bros. meets its Freeland neighbors over its master plan

More than 60 people mingled with the elephants in the room as Nichols Brothers Boat Builders outlined its master plan for the future at a public meeting Thursday night.

“Our plan is to be profitable, and at the same time be a good steward to our employees, to the community, to our shareholders and to the environment,” John Collins, Nichols chief executive, told the boatyard’s neighbors at Freeland Hall.

“We’re trying to find a balance,” Collins said.

He said the key component of the plan is that the company will continue to function within its current boundaries, its “footprint.”

“We’re profitable now,” Collins, a Southerner, said in his quiet drawl to those seated in a circle around him. “We’re not looking to expand.”

Some in the audience brought up the company’s checkered history in dealing with the nearby neighborhood, of “asking forgiveness instead of asking permission,” as one put it.

“This was a residential area long before Nichols came in in the ’60s,” said another resident, Lew Randall of Holmes Harbor.

Randall said he wanted to offer “perspective” on why several in the community, worried about noise, pollution and environmental damage, remain skeptical.

“Your footprint is a lot bigger now than it was then, and that scares me,” Randall said. “It scares a lot of people.”

Collins agreed that many of the company’s past practices contributed to its slide into bankruptcy two years ago, and its purchase by Ice Floe, a Texas firm.

“Our goal is to make sure that what happened two years ago never happens again,” said Collins, who took the company helm late last year.

Nichols Brothers is seeking a “consolidation permit” from Island County which would allow the firm to move forward with projects without obtaining individual permission.

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

Nichols Brothers first applied for a consolidation permit last month, but the county insisted on a community meeting to gather comments and respond to concerns.

Collins said the company is limited in what it can do by the weather and its location, available space, the number of people it can employ and the marketplace.

As for the “three elephants in the room,” he said the plan focuses on rearranging facilities in the yard to increase efficiency, and gaining permanent use of its eight 53-foot-tall portable weather covers.

It also wants to extend the workday three hours to accommodate two shifts over 17 hours, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week.

Collins said the change in hours would allow crews to work more safely and efficiently, while at the same time be sensitive to noise issues early in the morning and late at night.

He said that although all the company’s competitors work three shifts around the clock, Nichols Brothers won’t follow suit.

“That would never fly here, and we know it would never fly here,” Collins said.

He said the company currently employs 186, but expects to expand to 250 by late summer.

“We max out at 250,” Collins said. “And we’re practically sold out for 2010.”

He said the tall shelters would never be converted to permanent buildings, because the workload requires they be moved around. Collins said the shelters, once set, are anchored in place and would never be extended, because of wind concerns and the type of boats the company will continue to build.

He said the catamarans, tugboats and ferry components the company has been building “is where the money is right now.”

“If we don’t build and repair those boats, there aren’t a lot of other kinds of boats out there,” Collins said, adding: “You’re not going to see an oil tanker in our yard.”

Christine Goodwin of Freeland, president of Friends of Holmes Harbor, raised a number of concerns, including danger of pollution, and the noise and light traveling out over the harbor.

She also wanted a 25-year freeze on company expansion after it obtains a consolidation permit, in case Ice Floe sells.

“Our fears are you going back to the well again,” Goodwin said.

Steve Erickson, of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, urged the company to deal with as many public concerns as possible at this stage of the process to avoid bigger hassles later.

“The more you can deal with at this stage, the smoothest sailing you’ll have,” Erickson said.

“A point well-taken,” Collins said, promising to address as many issues as possible.

“We’re trying to find common ground,” he added. “We can find a way to coexist.”

Don LaMontagne of Freeland, a property owner in the area for 10 years, said he’s seen the company’s boats all over the world. He echoed others in the audience who said the company provides jobs, pays taxes and stimulates the local economy in several ways, including as a tourist attraction.

“Nichols Brothers has been less than perfect — I’ve been less than perfect,” LaMontagne said.

“But it has made an honorable effort to be a good neighbor.”

“I for one am quite thankful you’re here,” he added.

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