Port director to resign effective May
By Diana Haecker
Port Director Joy Baker confirmed her intent to resign, saying last year that she was going to tell leadership at city hall the effective date of her resignation by the end of January. The effective date, she said last week in the regular Port Commission meeting, would be May.
Baker has worked in several capacities for the Port of Nome over the decades, including as harbormaster and port director, and is most familiar with the intricacies of the port expansion as the port of Nome is positioned to become an Arctic Deep Draft port. The endeavor involves the City of Nome as the non-federal project sponsor and the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the project manager. With the upcoming port expansion project, Baker anticipates her job being split up in two: a port director and a project manager for the multi-year, multi-phased expansion of the existing port.
“The project management is very involved and time consuming,” she said at last Thursday’s port commission meeting. She added that the harbormaster is too busy to absorb some of the port director’s tasks and that she will give her opinions and recommendations as city leadership forges a way forward.
After handing in her letter of resignation, a plan will be devised to figure out how the transition would work, she said. Commissioner Gay Sheffield expressed worry that all of Baker’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the port expansion project would be lost. “What worries me is that you’re so intimately tied into this project, and then there’s going to be this giant sucking sound as you go out the door,” Sheffield said.
Baker responded, “No, we’re not going to let that happen because I care too much about the project.”
In her opinion, she said, one person cannot absorb both port director duties and port expansion management. As for getting on with the process of hiring her replacement, she anticipates advertisements for the job to go out in February. City Manager Glenn Steckman told the Nugget that a plan is being developed on figuring out a capacity in which Baker could continue to see the project through.
The port commission, in their first gathering since October, mulled in a work session the budget priorities for the next fiscal year., These included funds for the three phases of the port expansion project and associated items such as preparing a site on Port Road –on former Air Force property – to move tank farms, and Snake River Moorage or ship waste receptable facilities. The commissioners agreed to prioritize the port expansion funds in the order of the three phases. Phase one is the extension of the existing causeway. Phase two entails the dredging of the harbor basin to the specified depth. Phase three will be the construction of the east causeway. Possible construction start of phase one could be as early as 2024.
In a spreadsheet, Baker walked the commissioners through numbers that she said need updating as they’re pulled from the 2020 Arctic Deep Port Feasibility Study and would change as the cost-share ratio is no longer the 75/25 percent ratio that was originally agreed on for the design phase. Congress last month has passed legislation that changed the cost share between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Nome as project sponsor to a 90/10 split, meaning the Corps covers 90 percent and the City is to pay 10 percent. This change in cost splits is only for the federal responsibility, namely general navigation features (including the modified causeway and the breakwaters) and dredging. The City is still 100 percent responsible for the so-called Local Service Facilities, LSF for short, that include the docks, the roads, the water/sewer and fuel pipes, lighting, electrical features, road surfaces on the causeway, etc. The final cost for the city, in hard numbers of phase one, including design, inspection and ultimately construction of the Corps’ obligation for the general navigation features need to be adjusted to reflect the new 90/10 split. According to the spreadsheet, the city’s local service facilities phase one construction would be around $95 million. The state legislature has last year allocated $175 million towards port construction to the city. Congress has allocated $250 million for the federal portion of the port expansion.
The Corps also has pushed back the timeline on the 95 percent design completion of the causeways as they aim to steepen the slopes and use smaller rock, Baker said, which could result in further cost savings. However, moving the timeline back also resulted in projections that the bids for contractors won’t be going out until August of this year, possibly being awarded in January 2024 with a possible construction start in May 2024, although Baker remarked that there is little chance for a contractor to do anything in May 2024 as staging and preparing cannot be done until the sea ice has gone out and the winter snow melted.
Chairman Jim West Jr. asked how the money management would work once the project has started. Baker explained that the Corps is managing the project, with the contractors submitting pay estimates and the Corps paying the contractor. The City is not involved paying the contractor, and the city’s construction funds are given to the Corps.
For phase two of the project, the City needs to secure about $6 million for the local service facilities and the adjusted 10 percent for the match of the federal projected $18million by late 2024.
Phase two design and inspection costs are expected to be covered with the state grant.
Construction of phase three, the east causeway, projected to happen in 2026, showed preliminary costs of $149 million for the Corps (with the city’s share to be adjusted to 10 percent) and $20 million for the city’s LSF costs.
As for other developments needed beyond the water, the City is obligated to find four acres of land for contractors to stand up a man camp that can house about 80 workers. The camp itself is not the city’s obligation to develop, but the city needs to find four acres suitable for a mancamp. Commissioner Derek McLarty, Charlie Lean and Jim West Jr. formed a subcommittee to explore the options.
Other necessities include eventually receptable facilities of taking on ships’ wastewater and other waste.
Commissioners also discussed priorities for relocating the tank farms uplands as they are on unstable ground. Once the Air Force property on Port Road is conveyed to the City of Nome, NJUS plans to relocate their fuel tanks to the stable ground next to the power plant and about $10 million are needed to develop the remainder of the property to then potentially lease it to Bonanza or Crowley to get the massive fuel tanks off the unstable ground in the uplands.
In the regular session of the port commission, commissioners voted on a resolution to support the full funding of the state’s harbor facility grant program. Nome has in 2013 received a $3 million grant through this program, but currently has no grant application out. However, Baker urged the panel to pass the resolution so it can be included in the Nome Common Council’s packet for passage. The full funding of the program would ensure enhanced safety and economic prosperity among Alaska coastal communities.
Commenting on the recent Job Summit hosted by the Denali Commission in Nome, Commissioner Gay Sheffield reported that a good portion of the summit revolved around the port construction and what it would mean for developing a workforce. She said present at the job summit were university, state departments of Transportation as well as Workforce Development and several union and worker alliance representatives. They wanted to know particulars about working conditions. Sheffield said it was a very eye-opening discussion on workforce development and what is needed. She said, that discussion should have been taken place five years ago. Sheffield said the port presentation mentioned that altogether the port expansion will involve about 818 jobs; long term operations, maintenance and post construction for the port will be 15 regional jobs, 34 jobs statewide and 60 jobs nationally.
In citizen comments, Anna Rose McArthur, the only person in the audience, stepped to the podium and introduced herself as Kawerak’s new marine advocate, a job held formerly by Austin Ahmasuk.
Commissioner Sheffield set aside her commissioner’s hat and commented as a citizen, formally inviting the port director and City of Nome representatives to a Strait Science presentation on the port of Nome expansion project. She said the Strait Science would be a good venue –streamed online via Zoom – to reach people in their homes for an update on the port.
Commissioner Lean expressed that he’s in denial and shock that Baker would be leaving her position. “Joy has been a harbor master and is the port director and project manager rolled into one,” he said, praising her in-depth knowledge of the port expansion project.
The next port commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 16, when commissioners will take a deeper look at port tariff adjustments.