Homer looks to expand harbor to build its marine economy

  • The Homer Boat Harbor photographed on Aug. 8, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Homer is looking to expand its harbor space for large vessels, which would create more opportunity for economic development for the Kenai Peninsula town by keeping more boat business local.

The project would open up a new branch of Homer’s existing harbor, which currently only houses vessels up to 86 feet in length. There are vessels longer than that in the harbor most days, but they’re not given permanent moorage — instead, they’re tied up to the transient floats. That’s not ideal for those larger boats, and the city has been looking since 2004 for ways to house them better so they don’t have to homeport elsewhere in Alaska or go to the Lower 48 for repair work.

The expansion project would include a space for large vessels to moor, more industrial space and a deepwater dock expansion, among other improvements. It would extend off the existing small boat harbor to the east.

The city has been looking at the project since 2004, but the last time they did, the economics didn’t work out to make it feasible. Now it’s looking more possible. The city is asking for federal funding as well as support from other local governments to pay for a $3 million general investigation— a feasibility study — that would be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bryan Hawkins, the harbormaster for Homer, said the City of Homer has committed to $750,000 and requested another $750,000 from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget, with the other expected from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a federal appropriation.

One of the key changes since 2004 is the availability of a local quarry with quality stone. Building a breakwater in a harbor requires specific types of rock, and now, there is a quarry in Kamishak Bay — just across Cook Inlet from Homer — that could provide that stone, Hawkins said. Federally funded projects also have specific criteria for the type of material they’re allowed to use.

“Rock is not just rock — a lot of our rock doesn’t have enough granite in it ... it will break down,” he said. “If you build a breakwater out of of it, your breakwater will actually sink — it will crumble and it will fail. It’s got really specific criteria for the type of stone that can be used.”

That would bring down the cost of the project a lot, though the city still don’t have an exact figure of what it will cost. That would come after the feasibility study is completed because there are variables that could change as a result of that study, Hawkins said.

The demand for mooring space is huge in Homer. All 874 stalls are taken, and more than 400 people pay a fee to be on a waiting list for a slip each year, Hawkins said. Part of that demand comes from the local commercial fishing fleet, which grew by more than 42% between 2008 and 2018, according to the City of Homer. There’s also major demand for space for pleasure craft like sailboats and sportfishing boats, but the number of vessels too long for any stall has doubled.

The commercial fishing fleet is one major arm of Homer’s economy. Salmon drifters and seiners, halibut longliners, and Gulf of Alaska groundfish vessels all homeport in Homer, and some even homeport there that participate in fisheries further afield. Tourism, another major component, brings a large number of charter vessels, water taxis and other vessels there, as well. The current facilities also have a deepwater dock that can house cruise ships and larger vessels, up to 800 feet long, although Homer has not seen cruise ship traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Altogether, the port grosses $5 million for the city of Homer each year, Hawkins said. But the economic impacts go beyond that, as spending at the harbor and wages paid to crew and staff cause a ripple effect, as do the jobs created from working on vessels that might otherwise go elsewhere.

“It’s hard to (estimate the total economic impact), because it’s not just about moorage,” he said. “This business is not just about boats in harbor. It’s what they bring in. The real spending is in the maintenance and in the crew wages and all the commerce that happens from that dollar being re-spent around the state, as it does.”

That part is what the Homer Marine Trades Association wants to emphasize. The organization, led by businesses connected to the fishing and other marine industries, focuses on education and opportunities for more marine-based economic activity in the Homer area. For years, the group has been marketing Homer as a vessel repair and construction hub for Alaska, advertising the services available through its businesses and at the harbor.

If the large vessel port expansion project is completed, it would generate another $2.75 million annually in business activity, the group estimates, in addition to providing space for enough vessels that currently go elsewhere to generate $3.5 million annually.

“Port expansion will meet market demands of the marine industrial transportation sector, address navigational hazards and capture economic opportunities currently being lost while simultaneously advancing Alaska’s (and the nation’s) competitive position,” the group states on its website. “This project will positively impact the lives and livelihoods of countless Alaskans through job creation, economic development and benefit national security interests well into the future.”

Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the Lower 48 states combined, but only a handful of ports and harbors. Hawkins said the lack of space has long been an issue for Alaska’s marine industries.

“The only mistake we’ve ever made in building harbors in Alaska is building them too small,” he said. “What we’re trying to focus on here is building a next-generation large vessel harbor.”

In addition to building out its moorage space, the large vessel port expansion project could position Homer to be another docking point for barges that supply much of Alaska’s food and other goods. Currently, nearly all of Alaska’s food supply is shipped up by barge through the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. Hawkins said that Homer serves as a contingency landing point for some of the major shipping companies in the event that they can’t reach the Anchorage port, but it would like to be more than that in the future.

The city is hoping to secure all the funding for the general investigation report through the upcoming federal budget process and allow the Army Corps to begin its work, which Hawkins estimated could take about three years.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/21/2022 - 3:31pm