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Could Seattle have a fighting shot at keeping its NOAA ships?

With Bellingham having struck a blow against NOAA’s plans to move its Pacific research fleet to the Oregon coast, Seattle is trying to move in with a stronger case for keeping the ships in the city. The city apparently sees an opportunity to put together less-expensive alternatives to the Lake Union site where the ships have been based.

Mayor Mike McGinn and the city council today sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, outlining two ideas for keeping the ships here. NOAA has its Western Regional Center research facility, or on the Duwamish River at the Federal Center South.

NOAA announced last summer that it had chosen Newport, Ore., as the new home for the fleet, selecting it over bids from Seattle, Port Angeles, and Bellingham. But Bellingham appealed, and the Government Accountability Office ruled last month that NOAA must show it has no practicable alternative to Newport, where the site would be in a flood plain.

A NOAA official has said Bellingham’s $4 million annual rent is too high and disqualifies it as a “practicable” alternative. The Newport facility, where NOAA plans to move the ships in 2011, is being subsidized by the state of Oregon. But Bellingham’s port chief has said he believes that NOAA’s review will be more than a formality. It’s not clear whether a whole new bidding process might be launched if the review goes against Newport, a site many NOAA employees regard as remote.

Seattle’s letter said that moving to one of the two locations in the city would save taxpayers tens of millions compared to making a move to Oregon. City Councilmember Jean Godden said the two sites would also have cost advantages over Lake Union, where a fire destroyed two piers several years ago. Costs for rebuilding the piers and the increasing development around Lake Union contributed to making a continuation of the 45 years of basing the ships in Seattle look increasingly expensive for NOAA.

In a statement, Mayor Mike McGinn said, “Our local maritime industry, elected officials and neighborhood leaders have all worked together, forwarding a new solution that could keep a great organization and valuable jobs in Seattle.”

Speaking before the letter was released, Godden said community support has already been voiced for the sites. That could have been a particular issue for Sand Point, where nearby neighborhood groups are often active defending their areas and Magnuson Park. Godden said the idea got a positive reception when it was laid out to the Friends of Magnuson Park the other night. She said the University of Washington, a leader in marine sciences, is also very interested in keeping the research fleet here, and that those joining in the effort include citizens who are often leery of city actions.

Godden has personal ties to the issue. She first came to the city just after graduating high school because her father had been transfered to Seattle from Virginia by an agency that later became part of NOAA.

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