A gate blocks vehicle access to the former sawmill site, 6 miles southwest of Wrangell proper.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s borough government purchased the community’s former sawmill site last year, with the hope that the deepwater port can be redeveloped into a new economic driver for the community. And earlier this month, the borough found out it’ll get some planning help from the federal government. 

“It’s a two-year program to provide complete comprehensive planning and development opportunities for the Mill Property,” explained Carol Rushmore, Wrangell’s outgoing economic development director. She told Wrangell’s assembly at a meeting April 11 that it’s an award of technical assistance, not money. 

“We’re matched with a capacity builder,” she said, “And they will help us work through all of the issues that surround on-site, off-site for the development of that property.”

The borough partnered with the Chamber of Commerce and local tribal government the Wrangell Cooperative Association to apply for the Thriving Communities grant through the Department of Transportation.

Wrangell is one of two Alaska communities chosen for the program this year – the other is the Aleut Community of St. Paul, which hopes to use the program to explore economic diversification and resilience as Bering Sea crab stocks plummet. 

Ketchikan Indian Community and the Old Harbor Native Corporation were runners-up for this year’s awards. 

Rushmore told Wrangell assembly members that the grant will help lay the groundwork for possibilities at the 40-acre former mill. Plus, she said, the borough administration is hoping that participation in the program might help open doors for financial assistance in developing the site as well. 

“We are also trying to apply for a Port Infrastructure Development planning grant for funds to actually do some basic planning,” Rushmore explained, “It will be through the Department of Transportation. So the hope is that it will be a very symbiotic relationship where we can actually have some funds to maybe do some of these planning aspects that are being identified through the Thriving Communities grant.”

The borough doesn’t yet know what it’s going to do with the site. Community suggestions have ranged from an expanded boat haulout center to a regional recycling center or a vocational college. But before a decision is made, Wrangell officials will start sitting in on webinars and video calls with a federally-selected capacity builder to help create a clearer long-term vision for the old mill. 

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