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Irvin bows out for 2nd season

The William A. Irvin sits docked in slip at Fraser Shipyards Wednesday morning. Steve Kuchera /

The William A. Irvin, a 611-foot-long laker that has long served as a floating museum in Duluth, will sit out another full season of operation.

The former member of the U.S. Steel Fleet was displaced from its berth in Minnesota Slip last year as crews worked to shore up failing seawalls and cap contaminated sediments that have accumulated through decades of industrial maritime traffic.

To make room for the work, the Irvin was moved across the harbor to Fraser Shipyards in Superior, where it was to be placed in drydock for some long-overdue repairs and a fresh coat of paint below its waterline.

But the Irvin encountered delays, when the cost of the work came in higher than anticipated, and then the vessel lost its place in line this spring when other working lakers arrived at Fraser in need of immediate attention.

Nevertheless, Chelly Townsend, executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which operates the Irvin, expressed confidence Wednesday that a contract for the work would be signed in a matter of days and for a cost in keeping with a $500,000 Minnesota Historical Society grant that was awarded to cover the repairs.


“Once that goes through, we will be able to zero in on a date. But of course that date will be subject to work being finished on the Arthur M. Anderson, that’s in drydock now,” she said.

Townsend said the best-case scenario likely would return the Irvin to its mooring in Minnesota Slip by July, and at worst, she expects to have it back in its old home by October or November. The Irvin is expected to spend 30 to 45 days in drydock, but then it will need to wait for calm weather in order to slowly navigate its way back into Minnesota Slip, with only a few inches to spare, as it passes through the pedestrian draw bridge that spans the water.

“It will not be open this year,” Townsend said.

“Even if it gets back in say September, there’s not enough time to get it ready. You know, it’s been closed up for almost two years now, and there’s going to be a lot of work to do on the inside and the exterior. So, we just plan to have it open next spring,” she said.

Don Ness, president of the DECC board of directors, said: “I’m disappointed with how it has rolled out, the costs involved and the delays that we’ve seen. To lose another season is discouraging, and clearly there’s a financial impact on the DECC.”

He noted that the DECC will take a financial hit as a result of having the Irvin sidelined for another season, as the vessel typically generates about $200,000 per year.

On top of that, the DECC also agreed to bear $300,000 of the cost of moving the Irvin.

“We finally have just resigned ourselves to the fact that this is the way it’s going to be. And then we’ll just go forward from there,” Townsend said.


Ness said the DECC had been placed in a difficult situation.

“Unfortunately these things happen when projects are put on tight timelines, and when the DECC was first approached by the city and the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), there was a real rush to approval, saying that they had to hit these tight timelines, that there were dollars that were available now and we couldn’t afford to miss this opportunity,” he said.

Ness said the DECC would have benefited from more time to plan and make arrangements, but he also acknowledged the pressing need to address the slip’s failing seawalls and sinkholes that had developed in the area, calling the city “a good partner.”

The city has borne financial challenges, as well.

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. But Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, said the added cost comes as little surprise, given that the city budgeted only a modest 6.8 percent contingency into its project budget.

“The 15.44 percent cost overrun is actually a bit lower than you would usually expect and provide for on a project like this, which is to say a project involving the repair and replacement of 125-year-old buried marine infrastructure whose character cannot be fully known until you dig it up,” he said.

Filby Williams contends it would have been advisable to build in a contingency of 20 to 25 percent for a project of such a nature.

“The issue was the inadequate contingency included in the original budgetary appropriation for the project,” he said.


Townsend said she’s looking forward to the Irvin’s return and reopening the vessel to the public in 2020

“The whole area is going to look beautiful in a short time, because they’re working on all the landscaping and the curbs and all of that stuff,” she said.

“We’re happy to have a stable property, and we’ll be set up to serve our customers better. It’s safer. It’s going to be beautiful. We’ll have bike lanes and proper sidewalks. So, it will definitely be an improvement for us,” Townsend said.

The floating museum William A. Irvin sits docks in a slip at Fraser Shipyards Wednesday while the Arthur M. Anderson undergoes work and in drydock. The Irvin will not reopen for business by the DECC this year. Steve Kuchera /

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