Point of View: Homer’s pursuit of large-scale harbor expansion raises concerns

This week, the City of Homer is sending representatives to the State Legislature to ask for additional funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Homer Harbor expansion feasibility study project, and the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society is preparing to send lobbyists to Washington, D.C. The study we started last year ran out of funding and we need more to continue. The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society (KBCS) believes that the city’s pursuit of a large-scale expansion deserves careful scrutiny on a number of levels.

Number one, there isn’t evidence of any significant future increase in demand for large vessel moorage.

The city is advocating for moorage for 160-200 vessels of up to 250 feet, but they have precious little evidence to support any demand at that scale.

Yes, large vessels pass through Homer on their way to western Alaska, but where is the evidence of increased traffic in the future? Where is the list of hundreds of large vessels waiting to tie up in Homer?

In 2019, the Corps of Engineers published a survey of about a thousand large vessel owners who were asked if they would bring their boats to Homer, and two — yes, two — said they would.

Most big boats in the Homer Harbor now work in Alaska fisheries, and the city is not considering the implications of fishery declines across Alaska. It is tragic that climate change gives Alaska fisheries a poor outlook, but we must nonetheless account for negative implications of this trend for large vessel demand going forward. A warming ocean is bringing many of our fisheries to their knees, with shutdowns in crab, cod and salmon in recent years. Our own Kachemak Bay is facing reduced numbers of halibut, rockfish and king salmon.

At last year’s ComFish meeting, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Alaska fisheries are in a crisis. This past December, Trident announced that it would be closing its Alaskan assets in Kodiak, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and False Pass, as well as the South Naknek Diamond NN cannery facility and its support facilities in Chignik.

Outlook is not good for the Alaska fisheries, and horrible as it is, we have to reckon with it.

Second, neither Homer nor the State of Alaska can afford the proposed large-scale expansion. Consider that Nome’s bill for a deepwater port expansion stands at $600 million today, and that number doesn’t include all the “accessories” like floats or power, or the maintenance costs, all of which are up to the local sponsor.

We need honest, concrete assessments of the full cost to the city and state of development and maintenance, including power, water, road, additional parking, dredging, the possible haul out facility people keep talking about as a job-maker.

The sooner we get a handle on all these costs the better, as they will likely be unaffordable.

Homer is far from being able to afford repairs to our existing harbor — estimated at over $73 million — and folks are already grumbling about increased parking and slip fees. Homer residents don’t want to be strapped with the bills associated with a large-scale expansion for which there is no clear demand.

The Legislature is struggling to find funding for our schools and roads, and it is very likely that we can’t afford this extravagant pipe dream. The city council should direct HDR, the contractors we paid $400,000 to help with the investigation, to get a handle on likely costs to the city and state, as well as marking out clearly limitations that would be cost-prohibitive to alter (like road width, parking, and water supply) associated with the city’s proposed harbor expansion now.

Third, the implicit intent of the City of Homer to compete with ports in Anchorage, Whittier, Seward and Nome for freight and with Kodiak and Seward for large-vessel haul-out work is misguided. Operators of the large-vessel haul-out facilities in both Seward and Kodiak have said in no uncertain terms that there is not excess demand for large-vessel work, and that they themselves do not have waiting lists.

When a Homer City Council member was asked how we could justify constructing another port for freight when we already have cities on the rail system, Anchorage, Whittier and Seward, they responded that we need to be prepared in the event of an earthquake. KBCS sees this as a pretty flimsy answer that gravely underestimates the cost of construction and maintenance, but we have yet to hear a better one. Homer is just as susceptible to earthquakes as any of these locations and is much farther from the center of commerce.

Finally, there are a large number of Homer residents who do not want a significant expansion of our harbor. Adding 160-200 large vessels and 250 smaller vessels that could go where the big boats are now is unpopular — cost aside — because many believe it would have undesirable impacts on housing, roads, parking, tourism, environment, available water and quality of life.

Unfortunately, we have spent about a million city dollars exploring the possibility of a large-scale harbor expansion without first asking the public if this is what we want to spend our money on or if this is the direction we want to go. There should have been a poll or a general vote before spending extravagant sums of money to pursue expansion.

Now would be a good time to get a poll like that out there. And make sure to ask people: A) Do you want this? B) Do you want to pay for it? C) How do you rank the importance of this issue vs. other issues in the community?

We need this information, because the city’s ongoing prioritization of the harbor expansion is taking precious resources (think dollars, grant writing, staff time, travel, and lobbyist dollars) away from other priorities like affordable housing, recreation facilities and trails, schools, clean water habitat protection, roads, our climate action plan, and so much more.

Penelope Haas is the vice president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society’s mission is to protect the environment of the Kachemak Bay region and greater Alaska by encouraging sustainable use and stewardship of natural resources through advocacy, education, information, and collaboration.