Adak Residents Hold Out For Return of Fish Plant
Monday, June 17 2013
It’s been a rocky 12 years since Adak was incorporated as a city. The community has survived power crises, crushing debt, and twice, the closure of its biggest business -- the fish processing plant.
Now, Adak is facing a new setback. On Tuesday, the processing plant’s equipment will be auctioned off, and as KUCB’s Stephanie Joyce reports, if it leaves the island, Adak will be left without its economic engine.
It’s dark inside the plant, and our footfalls echo off the dormant processing lines as Richard Lewis, Icicle Seafoods’ last remaining employee in Adak, shows me around.
Lewis: “So this is all automated size graders over against the wall.
Let me turn on another section of lights.”
[Footfalls, lights turning on].
SJ: “How many people were working here during peak season?”
Lewis: “A couple hundred.”
SJ: “What’s the most fish that this facility can process in a given day?”
Lewis: “I think it’s close to a million [pounds] a day.”
The plant hasn’t processed anything since April, and on each piece of equipment, there’s a green tag, announcing an auction lot number. The equipment is owned by Rhode Island-based Independence Bank, and will be bid as a turnkey operation first, then piecemeal. Whichever attracts a better price will win.
For Imelda Claary, the outcome will decide whether she stays in Adak or not. She used to work at the processing plant, and stayed on after Icicle left.
Claary: “I like the place, I like the people, it’s quiet. We just don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to try.”
For Claary, trying means working as a cook and waitress at the Cold Rock Cafe. But without a plant, Claary’s not sure how long she’ll have a job.
SJ: “If the plant gets pieced out, what’s going to happen to you?”
Claary: “I hope not, I hope they do something to keep it here, to help the community in Adak. There’s a lot of people depending for the fish plant here.”
Cafe owner George Lopez agrees. He says it’s hard to imagine a future for the community without a processing plant.
Lopez: “This town is fishing. I’ve been here since 2007, and that’s all it’s been is fishing, fishing, fishing. You can’t rely on anything else. You know, we have contractors coming in and out, but without fishing, this town is going to die.”
Lopez owns or co-owns three businesses in Adak. He says so far, the plant closure hasn’t actually had much of an impact on his revenues because there are tourists, and Navy contractors doing cleanup work this summer. But he’s sure that in the long-run, not having a fish plant would take its toll.
Lopez: “I’ve seen the decline in this town -- I’ve seen it go from about 300 people, 200 people, we may have 80-120 people here now. So, it’s been a slow decline over last six years, and it’s been because two of those years we didn't have fish plant, and I just feel there’s not going to be enough to hold us all here.”
Rhonda Kelly is a former Icicle employee, and one of the people who’s planning to leave if the plant doesn’t reopen. She owns a house in Adak, and wants to stay -- but only if there’s work.
Kelly: “Hopefully that dream comes true, and I’m in that fish plant telling them where this goes, and where that goes, and how this works and how that works, and ‘watch out for that leak up there’ -- that’s what I’m hoping.”
If the plant gets pieced out though, Kelly plans to move back to the East Coast, where she’s from. Still, she says it would be difficult to cut all ties with Adak, and she plans to keep her house as a vacation home if she has to leave.
Others say they’ll stick around, no matter what. Elaine Smiloff is the harbormaster, and she’s had to go to part-time since the plant closed.
Smiloff: “It’s tough being a harbormaster without boats.”
But Smiloff doesn’t think the auction will be the end of the community. She’s lived in Adak since 2004, and has seen the town come back from the brink of disaster more than once. As she sees it, the naysayers have been wrong before.
Smiloff: “I don’t think there’s going to be any mass exodus from Adak. When they tried that before, when they were having the power problems, the city manager was saying ‘well, we need to evacuate Adak.’ I think that’s when they found out that no...”
Kelly: “He was the only one that left.”
The current city manager has no plans to leave. Layton Lockett agrees with Smiloff that this isn’t the worst the community has seen. He says when Adak Fisheries went bankrupt in 2006, that was much worse.
Lockett: "We’re in a much better position to say, ‘okay, let’s sit down, let’s talk,’ because we’re not suing each other, or we’re not all in bankruptcy together.”
The plant’s closure has resulted in some belt-tightening -- Lockett gutted the city’s capital budget this year to make up for lost revenues, but he says the operating budget is steady, and the city has about a million dollars in reserves. So for now, city employees will keep their jobs, and the lights will stay on.
Lockett: “The community will still be a community.”
The auction will take place Tuesday at 10am in Anchorage.