UAS, Juneau Docks and Harbors vie for former NOAA lab on Auke Bay

The federal government is offloading some prime real estate on Auke Bay and both the city of Juneau and University of Alaska Southeast are making strong cases to receive it. The former NOAA Fisheries Auke Bay Marine Station is currently occupied by the Coast Guard, though that arrangement expires this spring. Now both UAS and the Juneau Docks and Harbors have put in competing proposals to take it over.

There are differing visions for what to do with nearly 4 acres of prime waterfront property on Auke Bay. Juneau’s Docks and Harbors division sees huge potential in expanding slips for commercial fishing boats, yachts and even small cruise ships. Port Director Carl Uchytil argues that Juneau’s geography has left mariners with too little harbor space and this location is prime.

We’re cramped on this long, linear ribbon of land in Juneau,” Uchytil said, “so having the opportunity to acquire more land and utilizing that land as a portal for expansion of the harbor we think is in the best interest of the marine users in Juneau.”

Docks and Harbors submitted a proposal last summer that called for an ambitious $30 million harbor expansion that would build a new boat slip connected to neighboring Statter Harbor. Docks and Harbors would also relocate its administrative offices to the property, saving $56,000 a year in rent. Juneau’s port director says it’s a rare chance.

This is kind of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acquire property adjacent to a harbor than can really benefit the community for decades to come, and we’re excited about the opportunity that it presents,” he said.

The most prominent building on the site is a federal marine lab built in the 1960s. For decades it was occupied by NOAA Fisheries until they moved up the road to the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point.

Since then several other agencies have come and gone. Now the Coast Guard is using some of the buildings but it’s not clear if they’ll renew their tenancy when it expires in May. Considered surplus property, the waterfront acreage and the buildings on it are in the hands of the General Services Administration, the agency charged with managing federal properties.

The University of Alaska Southeast whose main campus is literally across the street also has designs on the property.

Port Engineer Gary Gillette notes the city would be glad to lease out the 14,000-square-foot main building to the university.

All the labs and everything are still there, so if it’s something that the university or some research entity could use, we’d lease it out to them because as a Docks and Harbor facility we don’t particularly need the lab space,” Gillette said.

The university, for its part, has politely declined the city’s offer. Instead, it’s filed a proposal of its own that calls for expanding its campus on Auke Bay and using the entire 4 acres.

“What we’re trying to do is expand the campus along that waterfront and use those buildings and we have plans to utilize all of the buildings that are there,” UAS Vice Provost for Research Karen Schmitt explained. “So then we will have all of our science programs — which are very interdisciplinary in nature — on the same site and accessible to the water on the marine laboratory side going down to the waterfront and the dock there.”

At one point both the city and university were working on a joint-plan but that stalled last year. A memorandum of understanding remains unsigned because Docks and Harbors and the university disagree over how to share the property.

UAS facilities director Keith Gerken says both sides recognize a compromise would simplify the process but so far that remains elusive.

One of the questions we haven’t been able to answer is whether there is a workable plan that has the two agencies sharing the property,” Gerken said. “That’s what I think frankly neither party can say for sure works.”

The university projects it would cost up to $2.2 million to move in in the first year. Demolishing and replacing some of the buildings and bringing it up to standards could cost upwards to $25 million over 20 years.

Schmitt says the state’s fiscal crisis — and the prospect of deep spending cuts — is no reason to abandon investments in education and that’s the message they’d carry to the Capitol.

We’ll be serving a large number of people in the community, certainly the region, and I think that’s the kind of mission that our university really can advocate for strongly and do well to have that property to make that possible,” she said.

Both sides agree that it’s a prime piece of land that the community would be lucky to have access to — no matter how it’s used.

As it stands the ball remains in the feds’ court. The university’s application rests with the U.S. Department of Education. Docks and Harbors has applied through the U.S. Commerce Department’s maritime agency. The federal GSA is left with the task of weighing which proposal is better in the interests of the United States government.

How — and when — the federal government will make a decision is anybody’s guess.

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