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September 17, 2010 at 1:28 PM

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Rossi visits shipyard that credits stimulus money for job growth

Posted by Jim Brunner

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi has fiercely criticized the $800 billion federal stimulus package of 2009, saying it did nothing but add to the federal debt and failed to turn the economy around.

He says businesses tell him they'd be hiring and expanding now, but they're afraid of "what their government is going to do to them next week."

Rossi has found a sympathetic ear among many business owners who are worried about impending tax increases and regulations.

But on Thursday, he toured a Whidbey Island shipyard that didn't fit that narrative. I tagged along.

Rossi visited Nichols Bros. shipyard in Freeland, which was the recipient of $841,000 in stimulus money. (The boat-building firm received the money through a competitive grant process under the name Ice Floe LLC.)

The cash paid for welding equipment and giant canvass shelters used to protect ferry hulls from the rain while they're being built or refurbished.

Rossi came at the invitation of the company's CEO, John Collins, as well as Matthew Nichols, part of the family that owned the yard for many years until selling it in 2007 to a group of Texas investors due to bankruptcy.

I'm not sure if Rossi was aware of the stimulus money the shipyard had received when he agreed to the tour and invited the media. He gave no such indication.

Rossi's campaign has mocked the stimulus bill throughout his campaign, calling it "little more than a collection of wasteful earmarks and bailouts."

Nichols Bros. boasts of actually increasing its hiring this year - the company employs 210 workers now, up from 130 last April.

During the tour, I asked Collins whether the federal stimulus had anything to do with that.

"Absolutely, it had a big part of it," Collins said.

Collins said the stimulus gave money to customers that translated to work on new or repaired boats. And Nichols said the direct, $841,000 grant enabled the company to do that work faster and more profitably.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray announced the grant for Nichols Bros. last August, saying she'd worked to include $100 million in the stimulus bill for small shipyards, and that $7.4 million was awarded to 10 in Washington state.

(Though it was included in the 2009 stimulus, the small shipyard grant program has been around for years. It's just that Congress wrapped the money that year into the recovery act.)

Update: 3:17 p.m.: It should be noted that Matthew Nichols donated $1,000 to Murray's campaign in 2007 and gave another $1,000 in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

I asked Rossi after the tour whether it gave him any second thoughts about the role of federal spending in the recovery.

He turned the question back toward a criticism of congressional earmarks.

"If something is worth doing, it can be done in the main body of the budget," he said. "My quarrel is with the earmark process."

As for Nichols Bros., Collins told me in an interview Friday the company wants to stay out of the politics and was just interested in having all the major candidates understand the shipyard's issues.

It's all about jobs, however they come about.

"If stimulus is available, fine. If the business climate is going to be conducive to getting people to spend more money, that's even better,” Collins said.

"We believe there is a pent up demand for the kind of work we can do. It's going to stay pent up until people feel better about their prospects for the future."

Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.