Former cannery worker digs won't be open this year

Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2003

PETERSBURG (AP) For more than two decades this town's tent city has been a cheap and well known summer camping roost for seasonal cannery workers, and, more recently, adventurous tourists.

But it won't be opening this year. City officials say the cost is too high and the return too low.

''We had initially thought since we had the money in the budget we could open it for the first part of the year, because it falls in this current fiscal year,'' Ryan McFarland, the city's parks and recreation director told KFSK radio. ''However, it doesn't make much sense to offer people housing and then have to kick them out. And as far as publicity's sake it would be confusing. 'Yeah, that first part of the summer we have housing and that second half we don't.'''

Consisting of a covered area, restrooms, tent pads and frames in the muskeg between the airport and Sandy Beach Park, tent city has been a cheap summertime housing option since 1980. That's when the city decided to build the camping spot for transient workers looking for a job in Petersburg's canneries.

Until recent years, the majority of campers were cannery workers, and they numbered in the hundreds. But two years ago the city parks department conducted an informal survey of tent city users and found its few dozen inhabitants were 50 percent tourists, or visitors there for only a few days, and 50 percent transient workers.

The change has meant a drop in revenue from the camp from about $20,000 to $30,000 a year which just covered expenses to about $5,000 to $6,000 a year, McFarland said.

Despite the economic realities, it's hard for some to see tent city close. Besides being the main housing spot for seafood processing workers in the summer, it a first home for some who have since become residents, like McFarland. Before he found a permanent place to live, the parks and rec. director spent his first month in Petersburg camping at tent city, sleeping in the back of his truck.

''It was a really good awakening experience for me to be living out there in somewhat, the squalor if you will, taking showers by the quarters and using the restroom out there,'' he said. ''It made me realize we needed to do quite a bit of work out there if we wanted the facility to stay open.''

In recent years, processors have looked to other options for housing their summer employees, including bunkhouses and Quonset huts.

Norquest Petersburg plant manager Dave Ohmer said in the past few years tent city has been a fallback housing option.

''It used to be practically our sole housing, but with the way our crews are shaping up over the last few years we're having to bring in more people and house and feed more and more people,'' Ohmer said. ''Tent city hasn't been a big, big part of what we've used. But there's probably always been 6-10 people probably that like to stay in that sort of a situation, or that we don't have the ability to house, for space reasons.''

Ohmer says Norquest housing is full right now and the company will have to investigate other ways to accommodate the summertime work force. He also wonders where campers will end up without the tent city option.

''Without that, my fear is theyre gonna go back to where they were pre-tent city which was in somebodys back yard or out in the woods,'' ohmer said.

The city may evaluate tent city after this summer to see whether the closure was a problem and consider whether the city land could be used in some other way. Some ideas have already surfaced, including an extension of the nearby Sandy Beach Park or a golf driving range.

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