Sen. Lisa Murkowski cuts the ribbon commemorating borough ownership of the Neva Lake bridge with mayor Jan Hill and Ocean Beauty Seafoods Tom Marshall. Kyle Clayton photo.

Haines borough staff, public officials and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski traveled to Excursion Inlet last Friday to tour the Ocean Beauty Seafoods cannery, dedicate a newly acquired borough bridge and talk with residents who live in the remote borough community that’s flanked to the east by the south end of the Chilkat Range.

Borough manager Debra Schnabel, assembly members Sean Maidy and Brenda Josephson, Mayor Jan Hill, planning commissioners Sylvia Heinz and Jessica Kayser Forster and borough clerk Alekka Fullerton comprised the borough delegation.

Ocean Beauty Seafoods manager Tom Marshall, who has worked at the cannery for 22 years, led a tour of the facilities. Much of the cannery’s infrastructure was part of a World War II military base designed to serve as a resupply for the anticipated war in the Aleutian Islands, Marshall said. When it was apparent the war wouldn’t reach the area, the military planned to dismantle much of the installation. They brought in German prisoners of war to take the buildings apart.

“Our one main building that we use now is one that’s left from that time,” Marshall said.

Ocean Beauty is the second largest property taxpayer in the Haines Borough, and buys fish harvested from Lynn Canal, Cross Sound, Icy Strait and the Fairweather grounds. It plans to employ about 275 workers this year.

Following the tour, borough staff and officials met with about 15 residents who live south of the cannery. Staff are in the process of selecting state land, some of which is around Neva Lake. Area residents said they wanted the borough to leave a buffer around the lake that would remain public, instead of subdividing waterfront land and selling it.

Schnabel said the borough has no plan for the land, but when the time comes, they’ll seek feedback from residents. “When we get closer to actually doing something we would probably come down and have a group meeting about what your ideas are,” Schnabel said. “Whatever benefits the borough overall would be good.”

Many of the old wooden culverts in the area are collapsing. The borough sent culverts to the community about five years ago, but some of them were the wrong size. A man asked if the borough would send them properly sized culverts. Residents also said they needed a trackhoe to install them.

Others asked if the borough would write a resolution supporting the residents’ request to the state to repair the airplane float and restrict Dungeness crab fishing to personal use in the inlet.

Maidy and Hill told the residents to put their requests in writing for the whole assembly to consider.

Josephson asked the community members what political issues were important to them. Bruce Gordon, 68, said if the borough decides to expand police service beyond the townsite, they don’t want to be taxed unless an officer is posted there.

“We don’t need that particular service,” Gordon said.

Gordon has served as the winter watchman for the Ocean Beauty cannery since 1991. “I make sure the place doesn’t grow legs and walk away or boat away or whatever,” Gordon said. “I’m the postmaster, the UPS man and the FedEx man. We’re the last no -post-office post office in northern Southeast.” Less than a dozen people live in the area year-round. In the spring and summer months, the resident population can swell to twice that.

Gordon cooks pizza every Wednesday and gives slices away, along with people’s mail, during which time they “solve the problems of the world.” Another resident said Gordon sometimes gives “dramatic readings of the Chilkat Valley News” after dispensing pizza and mail.

After the meeting with residents, the group ate lunch and then ventured to the Neva Lake bridge. The water used by the cannery crosses the bridge in pipes, and cannery staff cross it to access the intake system. The previous owner, the U.S. Forest Service, had condemned the bridge and planned to abandon it. The borough assembly voted to contribute $270,000 in Secure Rural Schools funding to help replace the bridge, on the condition the borough took ownership once construction was complete.

Murkowski helped facilitate the partnership. She cut a makeshift caution-tape ribbon to commemorate the transfer of ownership. Murkowski said the bridge helps facilitate Ocean Beauty’s economic impact. “It’s not a big economy by the scale of Washington D.C. or even Juneau, but it is a local economy. It’s a regional economy. It’s an important part of what happens in our state. I look out at those of you who are gathered on this bridge and know how many of you are associated with the ability to have Ocean Beauty’s plant up and running.”

Ocean Beauty still operated while the bridge was condemned, about a year ago, but employees weren’t supposed to cross. “If the bridge went down, our water supply would go down,” Marshall said.