ALASKA BRASS – High school brass musicians from around the state enrolled in the Sitka Fine Arts Camp's Alaska Brass Workshop play at Odess Theater this afternoon during a free concert that also featured students in the camp's new String Chamber Music Intensive. Pictured are, from left, Tava Guillory, Sitka;Mark Davis, Haines; Hudson Adams, Sitka; Jacob Batchelder, Fairbanks; and Hanna Morrow, Kenai. The musicians will perform another free concert at Odess Theater Friday at 3 p.m. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

New Financing Ahead For Blue Lake Hydro

Sentinel Staff Writer
    A favorable loan from the state may be in Sitka’s future following the Legislature’s decision Friday to authorize up to $18.6 million in loans for the Blue Lake expansion project.

The Blue Lake Dam in March. (Sentinel Photo)

    The vote in favor of the Blue Lake loan amendment came on the final day of the extended legislative session, and still requires the signature of the governor. Sen. Bert Stedman said that shouldn’t be a problem.
    “I wasn’t sure they were going to do it until the end,” Stedman said, describing the amendment to Senate Bill 99 as a “knock down, drag out” battle until the end.
    The amendment to Senate Bill 99 authorizes the Alaska Energy Authority to approve up to $18.6 million in loans from the power project fund for the Blue Lake project. The amendment does not set the amount of the loan, term or interest rate.
    “This is just one step,” Stedman said. In a news release, he said: “It will give the City and Borough of Sitka more options to access low-interest loans needed to complete construction with the least amount of burden on the utility rates paid by the residents and businesses in Sitka.”
    Stedman would have preferred an “equity infusion” – cash – for the project to bring the state closer to a 50 percent contribution on the $146 million dam expansion. He said some energy projects in the Railbelt are getting 100 percent assistance from the state. But he said he was pleased that he was able to at least get the loan authorization passed as an amendment in Senate Bill 99.
    “I would’ve been much more excited if we could bring the state to 50 percent, which is the amount we were looking at for energy projects from the state,” he said. “But there’s been a de-linking between what the Railbelt is getting and what is going to rural Alaska,” and added, “That’s politics.”
    Stedman said an AEA loan with low interest and a longer payback period will ease the burden on utility customers in paying for the Blue Lake hydro expansion. He said he believes the city will get a favorable rate from the Alaska Energy Authority.
    “There will be favorable terms – there’s no doubt about it at all,” Stedman said.
    City Administrator Mark Gorman said he was pleased by Friday’s news.
    “We’re very excited,” he said. “We don’t know what the opportunity will look like, but the opportunity exists to save Sitka residents money on their rates. It’s fundamentally important to all of Sitka.”
    Gorman also praised the work of Sitka’s legislative delegation.
    “I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Senator Stedman and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins for pushing forward on this and pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Gorman said. “Until the 11th hour, it didn’t look like it was going to happen. It speaks volumes to Sen. Stedman’s leadership and Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins’ support.”
    City Finance Director Jay Sweeney said that $18.5 million is needed to finish the project. The city has received other state loans and appropriations for it, and has issued a total of $80 million in bonds through the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank.
    He agreed that the authorization by the Legislature for the AEA loans is only the first step in getting the new financing, but said the city is ready to move on to the next.
    “The city is going to enter into discussions with AEA as to the terms of a future loan, while waiting for the budget to be approved by the governor,” Sweeney said.
    Stedman said financing for two mining projects on Prince of Wales Island, which is also in his Senate district, was provided in his amendments to SB99. The purpose of the original bill was to make technical changes to the Sustainable Energy Transmission and Supply Fund within the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
    The amendment allows AIDEA to issue up to $145,000,000 in bonds for the surface infrastructure of the Bokan-Dotson Ridge rare earth element mine.
     “This project represents an opportunity for Alaska to furnish materials of critical importance to the United States military and green energy technology,” Stedman said in his news release. “Additionally, this project is important for the much needed jobs it will create in Southeast Alaska. During the estimated one and a half years of construction, the onsite workforce will peak at about 300 employees. During operations there will be about 190 employees.”
    Stedman said the amendment for the Niblack mine project will allow AIDEA to issue up to $125,000,000 in bonds to finance the Gravina Island Industrial Complex near Ketchikan for an ore processing facility. Niblack is a gold, copper, zinc, and silver deposit located on Prince of Wales Island. During mine operations, Niblack has the potential to provide 200 full-time jobs, with about two-thirds of workers at the mine site and one-third at the processing facility, Stedman said.

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