Riverboat Nenana Declared Structurally Unsound

The iconic red stern wheel of the Riverboat Nenana at Pioneer Park seen Thursday afternoon, March 22, 2018. The riverboat was declared structurally unsound and will not be open this summer.

The fate of the Riverboat Nenana comes before the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly on Thursday while a private group, Friends of SS Nenana, continues to raise money and lobby leaders to allow it to spearhead a restoration.

“We are still working in a positive forward motion with the borough to lease the boat,” said Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, president of Friends of SS Nenana.

The assembly will take up a resolution that “encourages Mayor (Bryce) Ward to enter into an agreement with Friends of SS Nenana which stipulates the SS Nenana will be restored and again open to the public.”

The Last Lady of the River is a National Historic Landmark and a main attraction at Pioneer Park. It’s glory days of plying the Tanana and Yukon rivers carrying cargo and people have been over since it became a museum in 1957. It was later restored, and people could tour the decks of the river relic until 2018, when an engineering report noted safety concerns.

Once known as the Queen of the Yukon, the Nenana has since fallen into neglect, with chipping paint and rotting wood as borough leaders grapple with a building maintenance backlog estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, a facility maintenance reserve account with a balance of about $25 million and an electorate that rejected a bond package by 55% two years ago.

Negotiations between borough officials and members of the friends group have been ongoing since last year. The group is continuing to raise money, with about $20,000 in donations, according to Schmidt.

“It’s coming from the community. The community is supporting us,” she said.

Schmidt is meeting with a city building code officer Monday to discuss the International Existing Building Code on historic buildings as it applies to the SS Nenana, she said.

“Historical buildings do not have to comply with current building codes, but the structure must also be safe for public use,” Schmidt wrote in an email.

She has secured liability insurance as required by the borough, she said.

Both sides are hoping to have an agreement in place by

Feb. 3, Schmidt said.

Friends of SS Nenana opposes a proposal put forward by the mayor to salvage and restore a portion of the Nenana.

The proposal is to save “pieces of the SS Nenana on a firm foundation that can be viewed and protected.”

The stern wheel, bow, a cutout of the hull, the boiler, the saloon deck, the crew deck or the wheelhouse could be saved, the proposal states.

The cost is estimated at $2 million. A full restoration has been estimated to be $10 million-$20 million.

Leah Berman Williams, chairwoman of the assembly finance committee, wants the borough to contribute toward restoring the Nenana and will be pressing leaders to add a Nenana preservation project to a pending capital improvement program.

“Restoring the SS Nenana is a huge project,” she said. “It’s going to take community support. it’s going to take external funding through grants. And it’s going to take support from the borough.”

Assemblymen Frank Tomaszewski and Jimi Cash praised the private group for its advocacy of the Nenana. They sponsored the resolution encouraging the borough administration to contract with the volunteers who want to restore it.

“I just like the idea of people getting together, volunteering their time, their efforts — I really appreciate that,” Tomaszewski said.

“I support giving them a chance. We can give them a chance to do this.”

The borough doesn’t have much to lose, Cash said.

“Worst case scenario, we take it back from them and we are in no worse position than we are now,” he said.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.