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Wednesday, December 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hearing tomorrow on plan to fill berths at Fishermen's Terminal in Seattle

Seattle Times business reporter

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A walk on the docks at Fishermen's Terminal shows how time has treated the 88-year-old facility.

Several fishing boats weathered by passing fishing seasons now display "for sale" signs. The docks where they are moored show aging of their own — rot.

On this much, tenant and landlord agree: The home to much of the North Pacific fishing fleet desperately needs an upgrade. But to help pay for the changes, the Port of Seattle, which manages Fishermen's Terminal, wants to open the facility to pleasure boats.

A public hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, and the Port Commission plans to vote on the issue next week. But four years after Port officials broached the idea of opening Fishermen's Terminal, some fishermen continue to say that nothing less than a longtime Seattle tradition is at stake.

"There's places for yachts everywhere," fisherman Bret Barnecut said. "There's only one Fishermen's Terminal."

The terminal already is open to some vessels besides fishing boats. In 1997, the Port Commission voted to allow work boats, such as tugs and sightseeing vessels, to moor there. The issue for the Port then was the same as it is now: finding boats to fill vacant slips.

A proposal to also open the terminal to pleasure boats was discussed at the time but tabled so the Port could look at other options. Most fishermen supported both decisions.

The options now include increasing moorage rates for fishing boats and work boats, raising the tax rate or allowing recreational moorage.

According to a Port-commissioned harbor-development study completed this year, opening Fishermen's Terminal to pleasure boats would be consistent with other Puget Sound marinas, such as Bellingham and Everett, that have shifted to allow recreational moorage. Today, 31 percent of the terminal's 371 slips are vacant. Ten years ago, 10 percent were vacant.

"There isn't a business in the world — public or otherwise — that can continue to operate with the kind of vacancies that we have," said Mic Dinsmore, the Port's chief executive.

Moorage for active fishing vessels at Fishermen's Terminal is subsidized, and owners pay $3.30 a foot, or $132 a month for a 40-foot boat. At Shilshole Bay Marina, also managed by the Port, monthly moorage for the same yacht would cost more than $300.

But even with better rates at Fishermen's Terminal, vacancies persist.

Salmon fisherman Pete Knutson says that is because the Port has neglected facilities at Fishermen's Terminal.

Walking the docks, Knutson and Barnecut point to the fenced-off crane that has been inaccessible to fishermen for nearly a year and to rotting piling beneath docks that no longer allow vehicle access.

Improvements didn't come soon enough for other fishermen. Ralph Higgins, who served on the Fishermen's Terminal advisory committee for three years before moving his boat to Anacortes in 1999, said he left because of conditions at the terminal.

"If this were a house, it would be a fixer-upper," he said. "It'll be real expensive to do that now."

Port officials don't deny that Fishermen's Terminal needs work. Changes are under way.

This fall, the Port completed a $7 million electrical upgrade and $2 million worth of structural improvements to the circa-1939 west wall. In the next five years, more than $15 million in improvements are planned, including a $12.8 million reconstruction of the south wall and dock upgrades.

The Port proposes mooring pleasure boats on a separate dock from the fishing fleet, a recommendation of the harbor-development study and the advisory committee. If the fishing fleet were to increase enough to need slips used by pleasure boats, then pleasure boats would have to leave.

Port officials estimate that yachts mooring at market rates would raise about $200,000 a year — enough to service $1 million in bonds for capital projects at Fishermen's Terminal. Recreational moorage would be temporary until upgrades are completed, and Port Commission President Clare Nordquist and Seaport Director Steve Sewell say they are committed to helping the Seattle-based fishing fleet.

"We want to continue to serve the fishing industry, we've been doing that since 1913," Nordquist said.

But Knutson and Barnecut say that allowing yachts is the beginning of a long-term commercial redevelopment plan for Fishermen's Terminal. Port officials say there are no commercial-development plans. The harbor development study says "there may be potential to obtain additional revenues from new uplands development; this is for future consideration."

The Ballard District Council studied the issue this summer and voted to support limited moorage for pleasure boats as long as fishing boats continued to receive priority.

"There's no doubt that people feel a passion for the culture of Fishermen's Terminal," Ballard District Council President Kay Ogren said. "But I don't think you can expect it to be frozen in time to support a portion of the fishing industry that is no longer viable."

Change is inevitable, even for Fishermen's Terminal, said Higgins, a fisherman for more than 20 years. He pointed to a decline in the fishing industry and noted that a number of boats moored at Fishermen's Terminal are inactive. In Ballard, boat mechanic shops that once lined Ballard Avenue have been displaced over the years by retail stores.

As fishermen leave, Ballard will continue to change, Higgins said.

"Demographics shift," he said. "Life's that way."

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291 or fvinluan@seattletimes.com.

INFORMATION

Public hearing

A public hearing on whether to allow recreational boats at Fishermen's Terminal will be at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the Port of Seattle Commission chambers, Pier 69, 2711 Alaskan Way. The commission is to vote on the issue Tuesday.

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