Fishing boats in the Haines small boat harbor. (Jillian Rogers)

Fishing boats in the Haines small boat harbor. (Jillian Rogers)

UPDATED 4:00 p.m. Wednesday. 

An email received from Seward late Wednesday afternoon stated: “Unfortunately, I found shifting grant dollars is not feasible. We’re proceeding forward with the harbor expansion.”

Haines Borough Manager Bill Seward has placed the Portage Cove small boat harbor expansion project on hold. The reason, he says, is simple: the Lutak Dock is crumbling before our eyes and needs to be fixed. And so, he wants to poke around and see if money set aside for the harbor can be used for the Lutak Dock instead. The announcement came Wednesday morning in an email that caused excitement and frenzy among harbor supporters, and opponents.

As of Wednesday, when the email was unleashed to stakeholders, borough employees, and assembly members, Seward had been on the job as manager for two and a half weeks. But, he says, he knew how he felt about Lutak versus the harbor project before he even started.

“I started looking at both and looking at the risks associated with each,” Seward says. “The one thing that grabbed me the most was the ‘what ifs.’ We have a harbor. It’s not sufficient, obviously, because we have a waitlist. So, we’re definitely in need of a harbor expansion, but if Lutak was to become unusable – for whatever reason it collapsed or it was deemed unsafe by a professional, that would disrupt a critical supply chain in our economy.”

Not to mention, he says, the fact that someone could get seriously injured or worse, if the dock fails.

Seward cited a $90,000 study done two years ago on the Lutak Dock that said the structure is running on borrowed time and that it “has reached the end of credible 60‐year service life…”

But, a few months ago, the assembly approved the 95-percent design for phase 1 of the harbor expansion. Permits, including the Army Corps of Engineers surprise 408, and the 404, have been approved and bid documents are being drawn up.

Seward says he just wants everyone to pause. Just for a couple of days. In that time, he wants to poke around and see if there is any flexibility in the grant money set aside for the harbor. Specifically, he wants to see if the $ 19.5 million in state funds that was secured years ago for the harbor can be used instead for Lutak. Phase 1 of the project is estimated to cost around $20 million with another $10-plus million for future phases. Seward says he’s going to recommend that the borough redirect its resources toward Lutak.

“I worry every day when I pass by there and see these heavy forklifts moving these heavy containers full of our goods on that concrete surface which is crumbling and cracking.”

He says his motive came down to prioritizing ‘needs’ over ‘wants.’

“I believe we need Lutak and we want a harbor expansion,” Seward says. “That’s where we’re at. We’re just taking a moment of pause for a day or two, so I can research and make sure that if those grants are flexible, then I’ll be making a recommendation to the assembly. If they’re not, we’ll stay on course. We’ll continue to do the harbor expansion project, but I can tell you right now, it’s going to be concurrently while we’re tackling Lutak.”

Public Facilities Director Brad Ryan declined to comment for this story. But Assemblymember Margaret Friedenauer says Seward’s announcement came as a surprise. She says he never gave any indication that he was hesitant about the harbor project.

“It was shocking that he would suggest we postpone the harbor expansion project without discussing it with the Ports and Harbor Committee or the assembly,” she says.

Friedenauer says she’s not against Seward looking into solutions for Lutak because it is a priority and has been for a while. But …

“I’m skeptical that a borough manager can halt a project at this phase without the assembly weighing in. Or without the assembly directing him to do so.”

Stopping the harbor project because of Lutak doesn’t make sense to her, she says.

“We need to be vigilant about pursuing how we’re going to fix Lutak and funding for Lutak, but that is very separate from the harbor expansion project.”

Ryan Cook is the president of the Lynn Canal Gillnetters Association. He’s out on the fishing grounds right now, but managed to catch wind of Seward’s proposal. He says “it’s the stupidest idea” he’s ever heard.

“This project needs to happen or some of these bigger boats are going to be sitting on the bottom in the next few years,” Cook says. “There are spots in there that some of the gillnetters on these minus tides only have six inches of water under them. Why postpone it? You think you can come to this town and just push everybody around? It’s bulls**t.”

Assemblyman Tresham Gregg has been outspoken about his discontent for the harbor project as it stands now. He says the dock is essential, and the upgraded harbor is not.

“It’s hard to speak for the rest of the assembly, but if they have the best interest of the community at heart, they will understand the situation and act in that best interest,” Gregg says.

At a town hall meeting last week about the harbor, residents were updated on the progress and given a chance to speak out for or against the project. Of the 50 or so who showed up, most who voiced opinions were opposed to one aspect of the project or another. Many are stuck on the wave barrier. A 600-foot steel wall was approved in the design plan because it’s more cost effective than a rubble mound, facilities director Ryan told the crowd. The borough is looking for input on Phase 2, which includes more aesthetics.

Assemblymember Diana Lapham says she hopes the public can contain any kneejerk reactions until more information is gathered about Seward’s idea.

“He’s taking our priorities to heart,” she says. “I don’t fault him for trying to find a way to repair Lutak Dock and get that done. It’s been different to have someone think outside the box.”

Calls to a State of Alaska grant manager were not returned by press time.

The issue will be addressed at the next assembly meeting on Tuesday, July 12 at 6:30.