For the better part of four decades, the city of Homer's prime link to the sea has been a timber dock built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers after the 1964 earthquake.
Exposed to Alaska's harsh marine environment, the pressures of growing ferry and freight traffic and the cumulative damage caused by large-vessel impacts, the aging facility known as the Main Dock is worse for wear. By summer, it will have been replaced.
After several years of planning, pleading for funds and parleying with state and federal agencies over everything from use rights to maintenance responsibilities, the city launched construction of the Multi-purpose Ocean Dock, also know as the Pioneer Dock, last year.
Like the old wooden dock before it, the $11 million Pioneer Dock will serve the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway system, including the new generation of larger ocean-going vessels. It also will berth the U.S. Coast Guard's Buoy Tender Sedge, and later, its larger replacement expected in Homer next year.
But the U-shaped roll-on, roll-off facility also would allow barge shippers to load and unload freight rapidly and efficiently, including heavy containers. The city hopes to lure big shipping companies to the new dock.
"The necessity for building the dock was that the Coast Guard cutter was going to be changed and also the state's larger ferries," said City Manager Ron Drathman. "The dock will certainly accommodate those needs.
"That being said, we're also interested in the possibility of attracting containerized shipping. We will be having discussions with the major shippers, but it was a little premature to be doing that before the dock was done."
The city also believes the larger dock, extending as it does into deeper water, will make Homer more attractive to cruise ship lines. Hurlen Construction Company of Seattle is building the structure designed by Tryck Nyman Hayes Inc. of Anchorage. For the city, it's a major undertaking, but both these firms are highly experienced.
Underpinning the dock are some 160 steel piles ranging in length from 100 to 130 feet. They were driven using a huge floating crane the contractor calls "Thor." Pre-cast concrete pile caps and concrete deck panels top the piles leaving the dock itself essentially complete.
Work continues on the west trestle where Sedge is berthed. A pedestrian walkway and a pair of breasting dolphins needed for tying up vessels longer than the dock face, as well as other finishing touches, remain to be completed, as well.
The first state ferry to use the new dock is expected to arrive Tuesday. The Sedge already is tied to the unfinished west trestle where it is hooked to temporary utility lines.
"In July, the average person will look at this dock and say it's compete," said Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer. "There is a little bit of dredging and rip-wrap that needs to be placed off the Coast Guard's berth."
The dock's main face is 420-feet long, not much more than the face of the old dock. What's different, of course, is that the new dock is stronger, has two approaches and goes into deeper water. In fact, the U-shaped dock now completely encloses a portion of the old wooden dock that was left in place. No specific use for the old portion has been determined, but ideas abound.
"There has been some discussion of one of the federal agencies in town constructing a tourist-classroom type environment, maybe some retail shops and tourist-oriented area," Meyer said.
That could offer tourists and residents alike a platform for observing dock activities without being in the way. In the distant past, people used to fish off the Main Dock, a practice dropped years ago over liability issues. There has been some discussion -- but nothing firm -- about eventually allowing people to fish off the dock again, Meyer said.
While expectations are that the new dock will improve Homer's economy by increases in freight and cruise ship traffic, there is an element of "build it and they will come" about the venture. Nevertheless, Meyer is optimistic.
"It means they (shippers) will have a facility that makes it worthwhile coming here," Meyer said. "The old dock just wasn't capable of supporting real barge roll-on, roll-off freight."
The city is banking that the sturdier dock with its beefed up capacity will make Homer more attractive to freight haulers who might be encouraged to unload their goods at Homer and truck them north, rather than sailing to Anchorage and then shipping south. Homer city officials reason that communities on the Kenai Peninsula, especially its west side, might benefit from lower costs and speedier delivery of goods.
"Our gut feeling is there is an awful lot of freight that goes into Anchorage and then comes down the highway to Kenai, Soldotna and Homer that would be done more efficiently from this site. That was the whole premise of designing this for roll-on, roll-off freight," Meyer said.
The wisdom of relying on that premise remains to be proven, but the dock is there and the city's "gut feeling" will soon be put to the test.
The Main Dock on the Homer Spit is in the process of being updated. The majority of the project is expected to be complete by July.
Photo courtesy of Homer Public Works Department
Cruise ships have come to Homer in the past, but they've either resorted to transporting passengers to shore in small boats or tying up to Homer's other ocean dock, the Deep Water Dock.
Unfortunately, that didn't work very well, Meyer said. The Deep Water Dock is connected to a 30-acre landfill on the east side of Homer Harbor. It's an industrial zone supporting a wood chip facility, log storage, and other assorted marine businesses. It also is a good walking distance from anything a cruise ship passenger is likely to want to see, and accommodating cruise ships at that dock required arranging for buses. The new dock is much closer to the commercial and retail businesses at the end of the Homer Spit.
A use agreement with the state will give Alaska state ferries first dibs on space at the dock. For that and other considerations the state will help pay for maintenance. But ferries are never at the dock for extended lengths of time, and Meyer said he is confident the harbormaster can manage the berthing of the ferries and other commercial traffic without much difficulty.
"We think we can coordinate the two uses on the face of the dock," he said.
Old pilings salvaged from those portions of the old dock that were removed will be used inside Homer Harbor to improve the wood grid small-boat owners use to affect repairs on their vessels.
Meanwhile, other improvements to the business end of the spit should contribute to the economic boost expected from the dock.
An ongoing project inside the harbor is adding 140 new boat slips and 800 feet of transient moorage to the 48-acre basin's current 772 slips and 4,000 feet of transient floats.
A popular pedestrian and bike path built from the base of the spit to the fishing hole at the northern end of the harbor will be extended to the end of the spit near the new dock and Land's End Resort. A dirt parking area at the end of the road will be turned into a fancy turnaround and park.
Another project on the city's capital improvement wish list is turning the Deep Water Dock into a sturdier facility. Though it handles the bulk of freight shipments in and out of Homer, it is not strong enough for container traffic.
Eventually, it will be beefed up, too, giving Homer not one, but two heavy-capacity facilities. That could change the fortunes of this oceanside community and give a needed shot in the arm to the economy of the lower peninsula.
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