Ferry yard: Is it here to stay?

Welder Gary West buffs a part at the downtown Winslow ferry maintenance yard. - JIM BRYANT photo
Welder Gary West buffs a part at the downtown Winslow ferry maintenance yard.
— image credit: JIM BRYANT photo

The state says yes, and wants to invest millions in site upgrades.

[First of three parts. Saturday: How ferry yard expansion cost the island

a boat haulout facility.]

Whether it’s for the benefit of boaters, retailers, park users, taxpayers or tourists, many islanders and current political candidates want to send the ferry maintenance yard packing.

But one key demographic has yet to be considered, says Washington State Ferries shipwright John Enevoldsen.

“There’s some ghosts here we wouldn’t want to disturb,” the Suquamish resident says as he takes his lunch break outside the yard’s wood shop. His coworkers chuckle a bit but Enevoldsen is only half-smiling.

“Maybe it’s rumors, but I’ve heard different stories,” he says. “Some say guys from World War II are still floating around here, some say there’s guys here from before that.”

Whether they buy into the ghost stories or not, the site’s history is still palpable to many who carry on its industrial traditions.

“We’re proud of it,” says WSF port engineer John Christensen. “We’re a part of the maritime history of this community, and it goes way back.”

Established as a shipbuilding facility in 1902 by the Hall Brothers, old-growth wood beams still loom high over workers in the main shop building.

A long-unused steam engine track remains set in concrete, running past active welding, wood and paint shops. Workers often mention the site’s involvement during during World War II, when more than 2,500 employees swarmed the yard around the clock constructing navy mine sweepers.

As one of the island’s last shipwrights, Enevoldsen says he’s a living part of the yard’s 103-year-old history.

“It’s like the old farms that used to be here,” he says. “It’s slowly going away. Skilled labor is a thing of the past and it’s sad to see it disappear.”

But it’s not so sad when you set your eyes on the future, says Merrill Robison, a former Bainbridge councilman and longtime advocate of maintenance yard relocation.

“We need to think about what the next 20 or 30 years are going to bring, not what we’d like to inherit from our past,” Robison says.

Eyed as prime waterfront for redevelopment in a growing downtown, Robison and others want to block WSF plans to spend almost $40 million to upgrade the yard. He would like to see the operation moved across the sound to Seattle or Tacoma where industrial ports are prevalent.

As for what could replace the facility, Robison says the sky’s the limit.

“I’d say anything but a maintenance facility,” he said.

Council candidate John Doerschuk, who is challenging incumbent Bill Knobloch for a central ward seat, has offered up a vision of waterfront restaurants, arts venues, shops, parks and recreational boating facilities to replace the site’s present industrial usage.

“It’s a no-brainer for the city or groups to buy this and turn it into waterfront amenities,” said Doerschuk, a real estate manager.

Once redeveloped, the site could serve as a tourist draw and boost the island’s tax base, he and Robison agree.

“We’re short on money on this island for tax purposes,” Robison said. “And the (maintenance yard workers) don’t live here and don’t buy anything except maybe lunch downtown.”

The yard’s workers have heard this growing refrain.

“It’s not true,” said WSF electrician Michael Ball. “We’re always gassing up our cars, stopping in at the grocery store, buying lattes up the street. And donuts! We got those coming in here by the ton.”

Shipwright Chris Stark pats a stack of 2-by-4s purchased from Lumberman’s on High School Road.

“We’re always buying wood and glass up at Ace (Hardware) and it used to be we used to get all kinds of things from the hardware store that’s now defunct,” he said.

Of the approximately 100 full-time workers at the yard, 10 live on Bainbridge Island and 54 live in or around Kitsap County, according to Jackie Beddo, the yard’s superintendent.

Despite complaints, WSF officials say they’re here to stay.

“We’ve been here for 50 years and we intend to stay indefinitely,” said Russ East, WSF’s director of terminal engineering.

The facility serves as the hub for the entire system’s maintenance needs.

And the state Legislature recently sided with WSF’s position that a move would be costly and could potentially split repair services into two sites.

The state expanded the Winslow yard 10 years ago, after condemning land on which a private bulkhead and boat haulout facilities sat.

Because WSF already owns the land, remaining in Eagle Harbor would save the ferry system about $16 million over 30 years.

“Anything we can do to reduce costs bleeds down to the bottom line, and that means less pressure on taxpayers and on the fare box,” East said.

As a former Superfund cleanup site, WSF officials also stressed that redevelopment for other purposes would be problematic.

New residential or commercial units would likely have to be housed at a second story, away from the protective layer covering large deposits of mercury and heavy metals, they said during a recent media tour of the facility.

“It’s extraordinarily polluted and this would be a huge burden to anyone trying to develop the site,” said East.

With their home address apparently set, WSF hopes to soon begin a $38 million project that will upgrade docking slips, rebuild the main building and add a new storeroom and training center. Their plans will be presented to the City Council next week, in advance of permit applications with the planning department.

Parking would be moved to the north side of the facility, and the long-sought return of public haulout yard for local boat repairs – to which the state agreed when it expanded the yard a decade ago – is in the works, according to WSF officials.

City officials have discussed the haulout facility with the WSF recently, and are intent on guaranteeing a “viable” business there, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said this week.

While the one acre proposed by WSF may be too small for many boat haul-out and storage functions, longtime waterfront diversification advocate Rachel Smith sees an opportunity for compromise.

“We have a right to access saltwater there,” she said, referring to a 1974 state Shoreline Hearings Board ruling and a 1995 agreement struck between the city and WSF for a public boat yard access. “I don’t want the yard to grow, but I also don’t want it to go away. It keeps the place from getting effete with all the guys that want convention hotels, candle shoppes and art galleries. We don’t want to get too phony with all that.

“But we do need a public place again for people on this island to keep their boats, maintain them and enjoy what is a big part of living on an island.”

* * * * *

Ferry plans

WSF will make a public presentation to the City Council about their plans for the maintenance yard at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 in the council chambers at City Hall.

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