Depressed fisheries spawn unusual real estate

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

One by-product of hard times for Cook Inlet fish processors is a supply of vacated fish processing plants.

Some are for sale, some are for lease, some have been downgraded to buying stations or exist in business limbo.

The most obvious of the properties is the former Wards Cove Packing Company plant at the mouth of the Kenai River.

In June, a group of Kenai Peninsula civic leaders toured the property with an eye to how it might be used in the future.

Kathy Tarr, director of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Center, was part of the group.

"A few people had gone out and looked at the buildings at Wards Cove and were so excited about the potential," she said.

The buildings are spacious, historic and lie within the city limits in a prime, waterfront spot. Included are two parcels, adding up to about 63 acres.

"It has breathtakingly beautiful scenery in all directions," she said.

The Kenai Arts Council had written the owners, Columbia Wards Fisheries, inquiring about the property. The fate of the property has generated a lot of rumors, but what actually is happening with it at this stage is uncertain, she said.

Processing buildings on the site date back to the 1920s. Wards Cove had purchased the plant in 1958 and renovated it over the years. It shut its doors in 1998.

When the plant closed, Wards Cove's plant superintendent Bill Brindle estimated the facility's value at "in excess of $10 million."

But in March the Kenai Peninsula Borough assessors inspected the property and valued the combined parcels at about $1.3 million.

"The market (for fish processing property) has just crashed big time," said assessor Shane Horan.

When the plants close, things tend to freeze up, maintenance costs skyrocket and equipment becomes obsolete, he said.

Examples of the facilities shuffle in the industry can also be seen in Kasilof.

Inlet Fish Processing, formerly known as Inlet Salmon, closed its small plant on the south end of Kalifornsky Beach Road after the 1999 season and moved operations into a larger facility owned by Trans Aqua, which is no longer processing fish on its own in the area. Owners of Inlet Fish and Trans Aqua could not be reached for comment.

Across the river in Cohoe, efforts by property owners to lease out a fish plant proved controversial. The building in question is the former Whitney processing plant, now a buying station for Snug Harbor and for Seasonal Seafoods.

The possibility of converting the facility to reprocess fish waste irritated neighbors into organizing community resistance.

Tarr said she hopes the Wards Cove facility at least can become a public resource, including the original fishery buildings.

"It would be terrible to just tear it down," she said.

"You can see the economic transition taking place. At the same time, you want to preserve the history. ... It's been so big a part of what we've done here."

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