Tenders sail out of Whittier after major employer leaves town

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WHITTIER, Alaska (KTUU) A long-time employer contributing about 100 seasonal jobs to the small city of Whittier is closing up properties and liquidating assets across the state.

Records show that Washington-based company Great Pacific Seafoods filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy at the end of May. Documents report company earnings fell by about 24 percent between 2014 and 2015. Now this year, its fish processing plants are shutting down in Anchorage, Kenai and Whittier.

“What may seem like a small impact to somebody, is magnified here,” said Kelly Bender, president of the Whittier Chamber of Commerce.

Bender said although a city like Anchorage can absorb the effects of the closure, Whittier’s population of about 220 residents is expected to feel the the impacts ripple deeply throughout the community.

Since 1984, Great Pacific has opened up each salmon season in Whittier, providing contracts to commercial fishers, renting out multiple condos throughout town for employees and bringing more tax revenue into the city’s coffers.

“Our economy is much more dependent on major employers because we don't have that many,” said Whittier mayor Daniel Blaire. “It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars we're going to be short in the area, so hopefully we'll be able to make that up with a good tourist season.”

Commercial fishing boats are also leaving port as news of the closure spreads across the town. Captain of the “Jamie D” fishing vessel Robert Johnson said he’s trying to decide his next move. His quarter-million-dollar boat investment is sitting at harbor, and he said it either needs to be dry-docked, or he sets sail to find new business.

“It's hard on a lot of folks,” said seafood processing plant manager Ryan Casto for Fee’s Custom Seafoods, a smaller-scale operation in Whittier. “Some folks are going to other towns to go get other contracts with other people. Like they're going over to Cordova for Trident, or Icicle Seafoods in Seward. They have to go somewhere else.”

The plant located in downtown Whittier is currently empty, with some of the windows boarded up. According to bankruptcy documents, the company will be liquidating $2.7 million worth of property in Whittier, including $90,000 in condominiums owned in the Begich Towers.

“They were part of our hustle and bustle of the summer, and it's just not going to be the same without them,” said Blaire.

In a press release, president of Great Pacific Daniel DeMatteis explained the company's reasoning for the closure:

“This was a very difficult decision, but we believe we have no other choice given the financial performance we experienced last year. There was a significant drop in the price of roe due to the Russian embargo and the combination of the Japanese yen’s valuation and Japanese demand. This reduction in roe price was a serious blow to our ability to generate sufficient cash to continue to operate. Our costs increased due to the increase in the minimum wage and the elimination of the J-1 program. As a result of these performance problems, our secured lender elected not to renew our line of credit. Without a line of credit, we did not have access to sufficient working capital to begin the season.”

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