Council informs Sen. Murkowski of Nome’s needs and wants
By Diana Haecker
The Nome Common Council convened for a special meeting on Monday, April 18 to welcome Senator Lisa Murkowski to town and discuss the city’s federal priorities.
Topping the list was funding for the Nome Deep-draft port expansion, but also the city’s ask for funds to further the combined housing project for teachers and Nome police officers, and NJUS projects to enhance the wind farm and expand water and sewer services.
In citizens comments, Nome Community Council’s executive director Rhonda Schneider thanked the Senator for her support of the Housing First project.
Megan Onders encouraged the City to create a Nome Development Corporation to improving housing in Nome and figure out costly hold-ups such as water and sewer connections to new home developments.
After exchanging pleasantries and reminiscing about Nome’s late Major Richard Beneville, Major John Handeland dove right in and thanked the Senator for funding earmarked in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act for the port expansion. To be clear, the $250 million are going towards the federal side of port funding and are earmarked for the Army Corps’ Civil Works program to “initiate and complete West Causeway Extension” of the port. The city is obligated to share the overall cost with federal partners and needs to come up with funds to finance the several stages of planning, design and construction of several features of the port.
When the bill passed in January through a bitterly divided Congress, Murkowski said she couldn’t wait to call Nome with the good news as it was in the middle of the night in Nome when the bill passed in D.C. “We were shocked that this funding materialized,” said Mayor John Handeland. “I know there was a lot of negotiations across the aisle to get this from pipedream to fruition.” The city has lobbied the State Legislature to contribute money to the port expansion and also wrote several RAISE grants to the federal U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Murkowski pledged support for the project, to work with the city on the matching grant issue and to work at multiple tracks to accelerate the port expansion. She said that Washington D.C. now pays attention to the Arctic. “You have more awareness of this port because of the significance of the Arctic right now,” she said, adding that more federal “folks” will be coming to Nome to gain understanding of the region. The first on the wish list of federal visitors would be the newly appointed U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Linda L. Fagan, said John Handeland, then the Secretary of Dept. of Transportation. Handeland said as the port gets bigger, the airport may need an extension of the runway.
Shifting talk to other major needs of the city, Handeland said that Nome’s affordable housing shortage takes its toll on teacher and law enforcement retention. “We see high turnover at the school and the police. Teachers are financially undervalued and can’t afford to pay big rents on their salaries,” Handeland said.
The City has worked with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and obtained a grant to design a multi-unit housing complex for teachers and police. “If you are aware of any opportunity with a federal agency, we’d be grateful,” Handeland said.
The prospect of the port expansion adding to the housing pressure came up when Murkowski cautioned that Nome needs to develop a long-term plan. “How do you house the construction workers?” she asked. “You will have limited growth if you don’t have adequate energy, health care and housing.” She added that every community she visits in Alaska is “maxxed out.” “Buildings are old and moldy and energy inefficient. We gotta refocus on how to provide housing for people and utilize the assets we have at state, tribal and federal level,” she said. Apparently, there was an effort to address housing in the Build Back Better Act, but she said “that legislation isn’t going anywhere.”
Part of the housing crisis are also high energy costs, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In order to reduce Nome’s dependance on fossil fuels for power generation, Nome Joint Utilities’ Ken Morton presented a plan to expand the Nome Wind Farm, which currently produces seven percent of Nome’s electrical power, to add two more turbines to the Banner Ridge farm, add a battery storage system and/or add four wind turbines in the vicinity of Cape Nome and install a battery system there, to potentially have 40 percent of electrical energy generated by wind, which would decrease reliance on diesel fuel by a whopping 900,000 gallons per year. The estimated project cost would be between $14 and $40 million.
In regard to water and sewer expansion efforts, Murkowski heard from Megan Onders that it is nearly impossible to access the federal money that is directed to make water and sewer systems safer or expand them to new areas. Onders said that NJUS would apply for the funds to bring water and sewer pipes to a new development, but the funds have to be spent within one year with the obligation to have a the newly built home there in the time span of a year. Anybody building in Nome knows that it’s a near impossible task.
In final words, Murkowski said that she was shocked to find out on her trip to St. Lawrence Island a few years ago that the newest home built there was 12 years old. She said that communities need housing, or else people leave their villages, move to the closest hub, to find out that there is no housing either. “And then you end up with Housing First projects,” she said. “Our first goal is to put people in homes.”