from the public

Fans of the William A. Irvin must wait until 2020 before visiting the Great Lakes freighter turned museum. And when it returns, the public probably won’t notice much of the $504,000 worth of critical work being done at Fraser Shipyards.

“The plan at this time is for Fraser Shipyards to examine the vessel once it is moved into dry dock to begin repairs,” DECC Executive Director Chelly Townsend announced in a press conference Thursday. “The work will be focusing on blasting and coating the area below the waterline of the vessel and the hatch crane.”

The nearly 611-foot vessel has not been pulled out of the water for below-water-level painting in 30 years, she said. The painting is important to protect the hull.

The Irvinwas shut down last year and removed to Fraser Shipyards in September to facilitate work on its berth, the Minnesota Slip, which is undergoing about $7.2 million worth of repairs to the dock wall and capping of contaminated sediment.

Shipyard schedule and weather accommodating, the William A. Irvinmay return to its slip before the end of summer, though more likely by early fall. Either way, it will not open to the public this year either for the historic tours, for the Festival of Sail Duluth in August or for the highly popular “Haunted Ship” tours in October.

Before the vessel can accept visitors again, it will require a good cleaning after two years of being closed, Townsend said. The Haunted Ship program itself takes many months of building and preparation.

As of Thursday (June 6) there was still no signed agreement with Fraser for the work to be done, though Townsend was optimistic a contract would be signed in the coming days. 

Don Ness, president of the DECC board of directors, said give and take on the agreement, “that’s been a big part of what has happened over the course of the past, almost year, now.”

Negotiations involve what the $504,000 grant can cover including some repairs. “I think we got the work done that needs to be done in a dry dock,” Townsend said.

Since there was not a signed agreement with Fraser in September, when the Irvinarrived in Superior, the busy shipyard has shifted working vessels ahead of the museum ship in its schedule, especially during its peak winter season.

“They still have ships ahead of us,” Ness said, so even if the contract for the Irvinis signed soon, there will be a delay before it’s put into dry dock.

The $504,000 grant comes from funds gleaned via the Minnesota Legacy Act and administered through the Minnesota Historical Society. It required an in-kind match from the DECC. The more expensive cost for the Irvinhas been the $600,000 price tag to move it out of its slip to the DECC and the equal amount it will cost to return it. That $1.2 million is mainly covered by the city of Duluth.

The DECC generally earns $200,000 in annual net revenue from the Irvin, about half of that from the Haunted Ship, Townsend said. That means about a $400,000 revenue loss from last year and this year. “It’s a small percentage (of the DECC’s overall revenue),” she added, “but it’s a large amount of money.”

The former flagship for U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet has been a mainstay waterfront attraction in Duluth after its decommissioning in 1978, and one outcome of its mothballing for two years has been a number of inquiries from the public about its well being, Townsend said.

“We really appreciate the public interest about the Irvin,” she said. “We never thought it would open us up to so many questions; it shows us that people miss the Irvin.”

As the Irvin has had delays in its return, the multi-million-dollar Minnesota Slip project itself has had cost overruns, which were to be expected, according to Jim Filby Williams.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will be asked to approve an additional $700,000 to complete work on the Minnesota Slip project, which now is expected to total about $7.2 million.

The city had budgeted for overrun costs of just under 7 percent of the full project budget, but according to Williams, “the usual for a project of this character would be 15 to 25 percent of the total construction cost. … Our error was in not adequately budgeting for contingency cost.”

Among the unexpected items encountered was the presence of asbestos.

“There were extensive, deeply buried obstructions in the sediment of the Minnesota Slip that increase the cost of driving the sheet pile” to shore up the seawall, Williams said, adding that older structures embedded in the seawall made it necessary to keep and reinforce portions.

The new steel sheet-piling wall stops the disintegration that was occurring. As the landscaping torn up during the work is replaced, there will be some welcome new features for visitors and residents, including a new bike lane and pedestrian path and more accessible boarding for the Irvinwhen it returns and for the Vista Fleet cruises.

The Minnesota Slip already has its contingent of charter fishing boats back, Williams said, and the neighboring land will be ready by Grandma’s Marathon on June 22.