By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — Though Nichols Bros. Boat Builders is not operating today, it is still counted on to help construct the next generation of state ferries.
As of Monday, the Whidbey Island firm had taken no steps to pull out of its partnership with two other firms sharing a $348 million contract for building four new 144-car vehicle ferries.
“We’ve received no official notification that they are not participating,” said Michael Marsh, general counsel for Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle, the lead contractor.
“We talked with Nichols. We’ve not taken any action to cancel our agreement with them,” he said.
Nichols Bros. and J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma are the primary subcontractors under the consortium formed in July to carry out the work.
“Martinac anticipates building ferries in partnership with Todd and Nichols for many years,” said Martinac’s attorney, Jed Powell.
He added: “We hope that Nichols will weather this storm.”
On Friday, Nichols Bros. laid off its employees and closed its doors. Company officials have not said for how long.
Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said Monday she’s hoping the shutdown is short-term.
“We’re hopeful that whatever happened last week with Nichols is really just a part of their organizing themselves and they will still be a partner,” Hammond told reporters.
Steve Reinmuth, Hammond’s chief of staff, sounded more optimistic. “We have talked to Todd (Shipyards). We have every reason to believe that Nichols will continue to be a vital part of the consortium.”
The area’s state senator said Monday she hopes that proves true.
“It’s certainly not the message I’m hearing from residents of South Whidbey,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.
Marsh said if Nichols Bros. did drop out of the partnership, it will not scuttle the deal as Todd and Martinac can handle the work.
“One way or another we’ll move forward to build boats,” he said.
The exit of Nichols Bros. won’t on its own spawn an effort to revamp the contract to spend some of the money on much-needed replacement vessels for the 80-year-old Steel Electric class ferries.
“That contract is so delicately thrown together we’ve got to keep it going,” Haugen said.
Nichols Bros. has been tightlipped about the layoffs, said Sharon Hart, director of the Island County Economic Development Council. State and local agency officials learned Monday that the layoff may only extend for four weeks, not permanently as the company’s press release suggested last week.
“We’re kind of on hold,” Hart said.
During the next month, Nichols Bros. workers can contact WorkSource Whidbey with questions about unemployment insurance. Should the layoff become permanent, the agencies would coordinate to offer assistance to the highly skilled former Nichols Bros. employees, Hart said.
“There are a lot of resources out there for them,” she said.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfieldheraldnet.com.
Unemployment claims hotline: 800-318-6022
WorkSource Whidbey: 360-675-5966 or www.worksourcenorthwest.com