No contract was approved Tuesday, but a clearer picture emerged about the fate of Duluth's floating museum, the SS William A. Irvin.
The retired ore boat figures to be put into dry dock in Superior in July, sources said, and would make its return to the Minnesota Slip in Duluth sometime in August.
"Hopefully, it will be back in time to prepare for the haunted ship tours," said Chelly Townsend, executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which manages the attraction.
The Irvin usually sits in the Minnesota Slip, across Harbor Drive from the DECC. Stationary for 30 years, the Irvin was towed across the harbor to Fraser Shipyards in Superior to much fanfare in September. At the time, there was a verbal understanding between the DECC and Fraser that the shipyard would rehabilitate the hull and perform some other maintenance on the vessel.
When it came time to put that work into a contract this spring, Fraser and the DECC couldn't settle on a cost. Much of the work needed is to correct steel on the hull below the waterline, where it is pitting and thinning.
This week, the DECC and Fraser began to try to fit the work into a hard $500,000 cap - the amount of grant money the DECC says it has to do the work. The two parties are negotiating a less-intensive sanding process and lower grade of paint to fit the work into the budget.
"It will be a good coating," Townsend said. "It won't be what we initially had, but it's not necessary. We're not going out on the Great Lakes. We're in a slip. We're going to be fine."
The Irvin, currently moored dockside at Fraser, is scheduled to be put into dry dock following completion of work on the Tim S. Dool and then the Arthur M. Anderson - working vessels owned by regular Fraser customers.
Fraser spokesperson Rob Karwath and other sources addressed the difficulty at reaching a contract. Coming around once every 30 years, the Irvin is not Fraser's usual type of customer, they said. Fraser normally works with large shipping companies, which have equally large budgets to accomplish the jobs needed to put lake freighters back to work on the lakes. The slow pace of negotiations seems to reflect unfamiliarity of the sides with each other.
"We can accomplish what Irvin needs to stay in good shape for another 30 years," Karwath said. "We're trying to find some alternatives to get the work done and to do it within the budget the DECC has to operate. We recognize the financial constraint and the great desire by the DECC and community to get it back to the other side of the bay."
Last year, Irvin was closed as an attraction during seawall reconstruction and contaminant cleanup as part of an $11-million, city-led project in the Minnesota Slip.
The final stage of that project called for the Irvin to be displaced from the slip. It presented a good time to engage in rehab work at the local shipyard.
But a deal has been elusive. Even Tuesday, at the DECC's regular board of directors meeting, members were confused as to why the retired ore boat had lost its place in line to working boats.
"Every meeting I feel like it's changing," said board member and former Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon.
"I never got the feeling that we were going to be just a fill-in customer," board member Debra Messer said. Both Solon and Messer are governor's appointees to the DECC board.
Don Ness, former Duluth mayor and DECC board president, cut short the conversation - worried that board members were veering too far into speculation about Fraser.
AMI Consulting Engineers, of Superior, specializes in marine work, and is working with the DECC to finalize the contract with Fraser. Townsend said she expected one would be available to vote on at the next meeting in May.
Townsend tried to allay concerns, saying of Fraser, "I feel like they are really being honest."
She added that there were no guarantees Irvin wouldn't be set back in the schedule again - cautioning that if a lake freighter or some other priority vessel needed more urgent work, Irvin's timeline could shift again.
The News Tribune has reported previously that the Irvin usually accounts for about $225,000 of revenue for the DECC. It annually receives about 25,000 visitors in October for its haunted ship tours.