PALMER — The Mat-Su port's barge dock is getting more than $500,000 in repairs despite almost no traffic and millions already spent to fix it.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly approved the repairs Tuesday night at a meeting where the word "mothball" surfaced for the first time in reference to the future of the port on Point MacKenzie.
Port officials say the short-term fix approved during the meeting will protect the dock eroded by swirling Knik Arm tides and currents.
But another, more permanent fix estimated at as much as $1.9 million is still in the design stage.
The borough already fixed the 16-year-old dock once, only to have those repairs fail again months later.
Port MacKenzie runs at an average $600,000 annual net loss.
That's taking a toll on the cash-strapped borough as it grapples with other potential expenses linked to the never-used ferry Susitna, sold last year to the Philippine Red Cross.
A Japanese company recently shelved plans for an LNG plant at the port that could have brought in crucial revenue. Now the only moneymaker on the horizon is an Oregon woodchip venture, officials say.
If the potential tenant doesn't pan out, Assembly member Jim Sykes asked during the meeting Tuesday, "do we have a plan to mothball the port?"
"Um … yes," Borough Manager John Moosey answered.
He didn't share any details but said Thursday that there are no immediate plans to mothball the port.
"It's a real honest to God question — what are you going to do with it?" Sykes said in an interview Wednesday.
The borough needs a plan "B or C or D" if revenues don't show up at the port, he said in a message. "We hope we get stuff moving."
"We'd be crazy to mothball the port," said port director Marc Van Dongen, who's retiring next week but said he's still talking with 10 companies interested in the facility.
Van Dongen said the port was built with mostly state and federal — not borough — money, but development stalled when a 32-mile rail line to the Parks Highway was stopped by state budget cuts still $125 million short of completion.
"One of these days, something real big's gonna happen," the outgoing port director said.
The barge dock repairs come as borough government gears up for what's expected to be a difficult budget season given state cuts and pressure placed on schools and other services by the Valley's still growing population.
The dock isn't busy: Just one barge called last summer as the port contended with dock repairs and also problems with an anti-corrosion system.
The need for repairs first surfaced in 2015 when officials detected a large gap in a piece of steel that let seawater undermine part of the dock.
The Mat-Su dock is the same unusual design — open cell sheet pile construction — used in a botched Port of Anchorage expansion project. But the problems at Port MacKenzie are different, Mat-Su officials say.
The borough already put $2.36 million toward barge dock repairs in 2015 and 2016, according to Van Dongen.
The port at this point "couldn't pay back a nickel" of all the repair money spent so far, Mat-Su Assembly member George McKee said Tuesday night. "What do we have to do to stop this from becoming another M/V Susitna down the line?"
An Astoria Forest Products woodchip and saw log operation could start this year, Van Dongen said in an email Wednesday. But the company is still working with the borough's land department, as well as timber sellers, to ensure a supply for a long-term operation.
At the meeting, Moosey gave the project a "50-50" chance.
The work on the barge dock is simply protecting the borough and state's investment in the facility, he said.
The Assembly on Tuesday approved a roughly $523,000 contract for Sandstrom & Sons Inc. to place pipe piles to stabilize a damaged cell. The work will allow "for a permanent repair design to be further evaluated, finalized, bid out and constructed," according to a borough memo.
Sandstrom came in with the lowest of five bids.
The Assembly also approved a total of $850,00 loaned from other borough accounts to go toward total dock repairs. Some $400,000 will come from an enterprise fund established for the ferry. The remainder comes out of capital reserves.