The Mukilteo Research Station of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Mukilteo Research Station of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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Last-ditch effort can’t save NOAA’s Mukilteo research center

Bids to build a new waterfront building came in way over budget, so the site’s future is up in the air.

MUKILTEO — That old fish shack by the sea is officially getting the boot by the feds.

A last ditch effort to get more money to rebuild the dilapidated Mukilteo Research Station failed, because bids came in above the $40 million that had been set aside for a new center run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said this week.

A modern facility with public access had been targeted to open in 2022 as part of the waterfront master plan. The 1.1-acre parcel on Front Street is next to the Silver Cloud Inn and two doors down from Ivar’s. The brand spanking new ferry terminal is on the other side.

Gregerson joined Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber and other officials making a final plea to save the project that has been years in the making. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, sent a letter earlier this month to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo requesting additional funds for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center station.

A rendering of a proposed NOAA Mukilteo Science Center that apparently won’t be built. (Hensel Phelps, Perkins Will, and Rolluda Architects)

A rendering of a proposed NOAA Mukilteo Science Center that apparently won’t be built. (Hensel Phelps, Perkins Will, and Rolluda Architects)

Optimism soon dwindled.

“I recently spoke with NOAA’s leadership, and reluctantly, I understand and accept the basis for their difficult decision,” Larsen stated this week in a letter to local officials. He added that scientific research will continue at NOAA’s Montlake Laboratory in Seattle and the Manchester Research Station in Port Orchard.

The now-closed hovel on Mukilteo’s waterfront has been a mysterious eyesore for years, with a crusty pier, rusty storage tanks and junkyard of old experiments and parts, with barbed wire to keep out looky-loos.

“The fact that it looks a little scary prevents people from knocking on the door. It’s like, ‘Ah, that’s probably a meth lab,’” joked station chief Paul McElhany in a Herald interview in 2019.

Inside the crab lab was a tangled mess of hoses and bubbly tubs where sea organisms were grown in saltwater.

The center was a gem for scientists dedicated to studying climate change effects, ocean acidification and impacts on fish health. The work will go on at other NOAA research stations in the state.

The decision to not rebuild here has raised questions from some residents.

“It’s a head-scratcher,” said Steve Schmalz, a former Mukilteo City Councilman who started an online petition that has drawn over 1,000 signatures.

“NOAA has been lobbying Congress and our local officials for 16 or 17 years for funding for this project. All of a sudden they just drop it like a hot potato? There are plenty of examples when projects go over budget when extra funding is secured.”

About $40 million had been appropriated by Congress: $4.5 million in 2017 for design and site work and $35.5 million in 2019 for the building. Renderings by Rolluda Architects of Seattle show a sleek building that complements the new ferry terminal in design.

This rendering shows the proposed NOAA Mukilteo Science Center, which apparently won’t be built. (Contributed photo)

This rendering shows the proposed NOAA Mukilteo Science Center, which apparently won’t be built. (Contributed photo)

Officials won’t say how many bids there were or for how much.

When asked, Larsen’s office said, “It appears the bid records are not available to the public due to acquisition law.”

NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein also was mum on numbers.

“Unfortunately, the bids greatly exceeded the funds available for the project,” Milstein said.

The Daily Herald plans to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal agency.

“In my conversations with congressional staff I heard it was $15 million over budget,” Gregerson said.

Schmalz said that’s what he heard, too.

A worker covers windows with boards on the back side of the Mukilteo Research Station. (Andrea Brown / Herald file)

A worker covers windows with boards on the back side of the Mukilteo Research Station. (Andrea Brown / Herald file)

“The $15 million is not a whole lot for the federal government, especially when you already have the property ready to go down there,” Schmalz said.

Decades ago, the building was a temporary Air Force barracks used in World War II to support a fuel depot. NOAA began using it for research in the 1970s and took ownership from the Port of Everett in 2001.

The property is expected to transfer back to the Port of Everett, said Lefeber, the CEO.

“The Port and NOAA are setting up a meeting to discuss the details,” she said. “We are disappointed the research station isn’t going to move forward.”

Lefeber said the Port only recently learned about the change in plans.

“The Port would like to see the property used in a way that honors the marine sea life which is in line with the previous land use,” Lefeber said. “Anytime we do property redevelopment there’s always public input.”

The millions in federal appropriations likely won’t come along with the turf. Whatever goes there after the battered barracks is torn down will involve a private partnership, she said.

Gregerson said she is on board with the new plan and that residents will get a chance to weigh in.

“I expect we will have a collaborative conversation about the vision for what should be there,” the mayor said.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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