Murkowski visits Nome, addresses port development

Senator Lisa Murkowski posing for a selfie with locals Naomi Jorgensen and Vanessa Connors at Nome’s Airport Pizza. (Photo: Mitch Borden/KNOM)
Senator Lisa Murkowski posing for a selfie with locals Naomi Jorgensen and Vanessa Connors at Nome’s Airport Pizza. (Photo: Mitch Borden/KNOM)

Senator Lisa Murkowski made her first trip to Nome in almost four years this Thursday. She toured local facilities, talked with leaders, hosted a community meet-and-greet, and rounded out the day at a high school basketball game.

Throughout it all, she answered an endless stream of questions, many of which focused on the development of Nome’s port.

At the meet-and-greet at Nome’s Airport Pizza, a local band played, and kids weaved in and out of tables and chairs while Murkowski shook the hands of elders and posed for pictures with anyone who asked. In front of the crowd that gathered for the event, the senator made it clear why she was back after all these years.

“The time is round yet again, it’s hard to believe, that it is an election year.”

In lieu of that looming election, Murkowski wasted no time while she was in town. Her day kicked off with a visit to Nome-Beltz High School, followed by a tour of the Norton Sound Regional Hospital.

The hospital tour led directly into the Bering Strait Leadership session. The long conference table on the hospital’s third floor sat more than twenty of Nome’s leaders, with Murkowski at the head. Additional tables and chairs lined the outer edges of the room for leadership overflow.

Nome’s mayor Richard Beneville was at the center table and described the turnout.

“We had 40 people from the region, I was in tears, from Chamber of Commerce and Native organizations and the hospital, and everything,” Beneville said, adding “it was just wonderful.”

The need to address Nome’s housing crisis, expand rural health services, and preserve the bypass mail program were all pressing issues touched on at the session. And, of course, the port.

When Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of the Chukchi Sea after a disappointing drilling season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put its deep draft Arctic port study on hold, surprising many, Murkowski included.

“When the Corps said we’re going to put this on pause, I think that that really caught everybody off guard because we’d kind of thought that things are cooking along,” Murkowski admitted.

But recent developments at Port Clarence, the naturally deep draft port over one hundred miles northwest of Nome, have many in Nome fired up again. Port Director Joy Baker said she sees a future that includes both.

“I don’t believe it’s ever been an either/or facility development, because Port Clarence has naturally deep water and a really nice protective harbor that serves a vital purpose.”

And then, she added, “the port of Nome has offshore marine infrastructure — the docks and the breakwaters for protection from the storms, and the community infrastructure — the community and the hospital.” 

Port Clarence got a recent boost in attention when it was included in the Coast Guard Authorization Act. But Nome hasn’t been left out entirely.

In December, Murkowski, along with Senator Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to make Nome’s port development a priority for his administration.

Port development in Nome is so popular, in fact, that instead of saying “cheese” for the last photo-op of the night, Murkowski and everyone at the meet-and-greet yelled out “deep draft port” to bring smiles to their faces.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for a year at KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.