Small Freeland shop wins $500K fire boat bid

A new South Whidbey company with ties to Nichols Brothers Boat Builders landed its first contract Monday: the job of building a fire boat for South Whidbey Fire/EMS.

A new South Whidbey company with ties to Nichols Brothers Boat Builders landed its first contract Monday: the job of building a fire boat for South Whidbey Fire/EMS.

In a special meeting Monday at the Langley station, commissioners Bob Elliot, Mike Helland and Kenon Simmons unanimously handed the contract to the only bidder, North Cross Aluminum, owned by Freeland resident Tim Leonard.

The winning and only bid was for $478,893.77.

Although he voted yes, Elliot during the discussion period expressed concerns about letting a $500,000 contract to a new business, even if it is local. Most of the money, $350,000, will come through a Federal Emergency Management grant landed by the Port of South Whidbey, which wants the fire boat as a tenant for its expanded Langley Marina. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Tim Leonard, owner of Freeland’s North Cross Aluminum, shows off his shop where a $500,000 fire boat for South Whidbey Fire/EMS will be built.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS will be saddled with the other 25 percent of construction costs with its capital funds.

“I know these gentlemen are capable of building boats,” Elliott said, referring to Leonard and Justin Nichols, son of Nichols Brothers CEO Matt Nichols and a long-time friend of Leonard’s. “What worries me is this will be the first one. I’m a little leery of that, I haven’t seen your product.”

The bid design called for a two-hulled catamaran, something Nichols Brothers has specialized in for years, rather than a production line fireboat built by some other company.

The fire district has eyed a new boat for several years and had the design ready to go when the FEMA grant was confirmed earlier this year. It could be used for water rescues, fighting fires or evacuating people from shore.

Leonard acknowledged the unusual design and said, “a custom platform always raises these questions,” and admitted the 32-foot long, 12-foot wide boat is “a stretch to the facilities I’ve got.” But he assured the commissioners that his team, which includes Nichols Brothers welding expert and boat foreman Alan Wright, can get the job done.

Wright is currently foreman of the Nichols tug undergoing sea trials in Langley. He said the tug could leave as early as Friday, and indicated he will keep his day job at Nichols Brothers while helping Leonard with the fire boat project.

“We all had to sit down and say can we build this boat,” Leonard told the commissioners. “Nobody wants pie on their face.”

Justin Nichols seemed to exude confidence, however. “We’re committed to building it,” he said.

Leonard was taking on his first full boat construction job and looked a little nervous when he said North Cross will have to spend $200,000 up front to purchase aluminum for construction and the power plant. After that will come electronics and firefighting equipment. And there’s a tight timeline. “The delivery date is January 1,” said Fire Chief Rusty Palmer, who had opposed the bid award at a meeting last week. The FEMA grant expires at the end of this year.

Commissioner Simmons expressed confidence in the North Cross team, particularly Nichols. “I talked to Justin today and he’s personally behind this project,” he said. “His assertion is these guys have the ability and have Nichols resources available.”

Leonard assured the commissioners North Cross will be bonded to protect the taxpayers once the contract is signed. And he promised the Jan. 1 deadline will be met. “No matter how many hours we have to work we’re going to get it done on time,” he said.

Leonard and Chief Palmer will work on contract details this week. A special meeting for the commissioners to sign the contract was set for 5 p.m. Monday, April 22 at the Freeland station.

After the meeting, Nichols alluded to his family’s history of starting small and developing into a busy boat yard that builds tugs, catamarans and myriad other types of boats for customers around the world.

“You build yourself into it,” Nichols said.

For Leonard, this is his chance to start building.