Daysha Eaton / KMXT
The village of Old Harbor held a ribbon cutting this week for an airport extension that has been in the works for six years.
The project nearly doubles the length of the current airfield, allowing large aircraft to land. The Old Harbor Safety and Expansion Project is intended to improve the safety of the State of Alaska airfield, and DOT has agreed to maintain it. Leaders also hope it will support a seafood processing facility that their community has been pursuing for over 20 years.
Under blue skies, a red ribbon is stretched between two stakes, beyond which service members who helped build the runway stand at attention.
Father Joseph, Old Harbor’s Orthodox priest, sprinkles holy water and blesses the runway.
Carl Marrs, CEO of Old Harbor Native Corporation, addresses the crowd and thanks Alaska’s congressional delegation, the State of Alaska and the military.
“The airport extension will help us to build a healthy community in Old Harbor for many generations to come. We work diligently to have a sustainable community where a family can make a decent living and raise their children close to their cultural roots and subsistence lifestyle.”
Then, Congressman Don Young, holding a giant pair of scissors, cuts the ribbon.
The purpose of the runway extension is to send out air freight from the community’s future seafood processor.
Earlier in the day, dignitaries arrived to celebrate the runway’s completion, many on a Marine Corps C-130. Leaders hope the runway will receive many more large planes in the future, carrying local seafood back out of Old Harbor, straight to market.
Eventually, everyone ended up at the school where they shared a meal of locally caught tanner crab, king and silver salmon, and deer stew with local people, then heard from the Mayor.
“Thank you all for coming, and we’re here to celebrate the completion of our Old Harbor Runway Expansion and Safety Project.”
Mayor Rick Berns is a commercial fisherman who’s lived in the Alutiiq village, originally called Nuniaq, on the east side of Kodiak, since the ‘70s.
“When I first came down here, we had a 17-hundred-foot runway. That was one of the few runways on the island at the time. Most of the island was served by Gooses and seaplanes.”
In the early ‘90s, they relocated the runway to where it is now and expanded it. As residents moved out, leaders realized they needed to do something.
“We have about 220-people population. When I first moved out here, there was 300. I think it was up to about 330, and we’ve had a population in our school of 120 kids, students. Now, we’re down to 30. It might even be in the upper 20s on the student population. So, you can see where that loss of population had us concerned as a leadership group.”
The runway is phase three of a five-part plan. They already built a new boat harbor and replaced their dock. With the runway done, the next step will be to establish hydropower to provide cheaper electricity then build the plant.
The hope is that the economic development project will bring community members home to work and allow young people who go off to college the opportunity to return to the run the plant. They’re not yet sure what they’ll process due to instability of the Gulf fisheries, low salmon returns, and the collapse of the cod fishery, but they are considering all options, including the emerging kelp industry.
“Alright, my name is John Geary. I’m the operations chief for IRT Old Harbor. I’m a heavy equipment operator from Marine wing support squadron 473 in Fort Worth, Texas.”
Geary, along with fellow service members, supply the expertise and manpower while the state and federal government provide funds for materials. The camp can hold 50 soldiers at a time.
“Alright, so this is the main camp where the Marines stay. This is part of the expeditionary training that we are providing. This camp essentially operates completely off the grid.”
That’s a situation Geary is familiar with. He’s been involved with the project several times.
“The first couple of years [that] I came, I came like most of the Marines who come here for a two week annual reserve training, and then in 2016, I was on the actual project staff for four months and then, this year, I’ve been here for three months.”
Over the years, more than 2000 service members have worked in Old Harbor, which Geary says has become a home away from home for many of them.
“A lot of the Marines have had an outstanding time being here. They’ll normally at least have one day where they can kind of experience the local community, whether it’s hiking, fishing, or anything like that. It’s been a great billboard for Alaska, and the community’s been an outstanding partner for the Marine Corps throughout all this.”
This week, Geary along with the other service members will pack up their camp and barge equipment out, then fly home, leaving Old Harbor one step closer to a sustainable future.