By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The sole bid to rebuild the Crescent City wastewater treatment plant topped officials' estimates by about $4 million.
On Thursday, city officials opened the $37.7 million bid from a partnership of three Eureka firms for the project that would erect new buildings and install new equipment to better treat the area's wastewater.
"I don't see a lot of smiling, happy people," said mayor Den-nis Burns as he walked into city hall after officials opened the bid from Wahlund Construction Inc., Sequoia Construction Special-ties and O&M Industries.
An engineering design team had estimated the cost at just over $33 million.
The city had sent 50 sets of plans to sites throughout northern California and southern Ore-gon and contacted dozens of contractors, seeking more firms to compete for the project. City building officials also purposely scheduled the bid process for February, early enough in the year to grab attention before firms lined up other projects.
But strong national housing construction rates, along with Del Norte County's isolation from companies that specialize in large sewer projects, probably hindered offers. "We were hoping for others," said Ward Stover, owner of Ward Stover Engineering, a Crescent City firm that the city contracted to manage bidding work. "It's a tight bidding market right now."
Along with engineering designers and city staff, Stover and City Public Works Director Jim Barnts will review the bid and the city's options, then draft a recommendation for City Council. The council must decide within three months whether to accept or reject the bid and could consider it at a March 5 meeting.
"It's a little higher than we were hoping it would be," Barnts said.
The offer marks one of the region's highest for any project.
"Dollar amount, I don't think they've ever seen a bid bigger than that," Stover said.
Del Norte County community development director Ernest Perry agreed.
"It's got to be one of the biggest bids received in this community, if not the biggest one," Perry said.
The county's last big bid came for an airport fire station construction project ¬ó about $1.5 million for work expected to cost in the $800,000 range. The county scaled back the project and sought new bids.
"I hope the city doesn't have to do that," Perry said, noting that expenses can mount over time.
The project aims to upgrade the plant, built in 1958 and renovated in the 1970s. The outdated system has garnered state violation notices and connection limits. About once each year, pumps fail to handle sewage during heavy rainstorms, sending raw sewage out of drains on low-lying city streets and in nearby buildings.
The infrastructure project also aims to ensure future economic growth by providing wastewater treatment service for homes and businesses in a region that seeks to develop.
"It's an important project for all of us," Perry said, noting urban growth goals. "You got to have the infrastructure to allow it to take place."
But such a project's short-term effects can also spark the local economy, as a project employs subcontractor firms throughout the region, buys materials from local stores, uses local motels to temporarily house workers.
"It pumps business and economic activity into the community," Perry said.
The high bid failed to surprise city finance director Edwin Erickson.
"This isn't anything out of the ordinary," Erickson said, noting similar big infrastructure projects across the state. "This is kind of a scaled-back version of what was being talked about."
The city probably would fund the work with a bond through a private institution while seeking low interest loans from state, federal and private agencies.
"For future economic development, it's essential that this project be completed," Erickson said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."