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Lake Assault builds river boats

A prototype of the river barges Lake Assault Boats will build for the city of San Antonio, Texas, cruises on the San Antonio River adjacent to the city’s iconic River Walk. Courtesy of Lake Assault Boats

A Superior-based company plays a role when the city of San Antonio, Texas, celebrates its tricentennial next year.

Lake Assault Boats in Superior, a subsidiary of Fraser Industries, secured a $6.2 million contract with the city of San Antonio to build 43 new barges for the city’s iconic River Walk.

The all-aluminum barges will replace the fleet of tourist and commuter barges used on the San Antonio River through the city’s downtown.

The new barges will be manufactured at Lake Assault’s headquarters on the grounds of Fraser Shipyards, the only remaining major shipyard on the Great Lakes in the United States.

"We’re excited about it," said Chad DuMars, Lake Assault vice president of operations. "Lake Assault was awarded the contract to build these boats to be delivered to the city — they’ll be built here and then delivered to San Antonio." He said a big part of the thrill is knowing that barges built here will play an important role in a major city’s tourist destination.

Known as Paseo del Rio, the San Antonio River Walk is a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River lined with bars, shops, restaurants and nature — a draw for tourists.

Lake Assault, which is best known for its mission-specific, custom-designed watercraft, will be adding about 14 people — welders, fabricators, mechanics and fitters — to deliver on the contract. Some of those positions have already been filled, DuMars said.

"We need more women working here as well," said James Farkas, president and chief operating officer of Fraser Industries, which acquired Lake Assault Boats in 2010 and operates the 126-year-old Fraser Shipyard.

DuMars said the Superior-based company began working with the city of San Antonio in July when the company received a solicitation to bid on the project. Bids were opened in October and the San Antonio City Council approved the contract in December.

Lake Assault Boats scored the highest of four companies considered for the work, according to documents supplied to the San Antonio City Council before approving the contract.

DuMars said from the time of the bid opening until the contract was award, there was a constant dialogue back and forth with the city. The company attended the San Antonio City Council meeting Dec. 1, when the contract was awarded.

"It’s another successful Johnson company," said Jason Serck, Superior’s economic development, port and planning director.

Unlike watercraft typically built by Lake Assault Boats, police and fire emergency response watercraft, the river barges were designed by a Houston-based design firm, Metalab.

"This is simply a build contract for us, which is a little different for us," DuMars said. "We’re used to doing the design work ourselves."

Work is already underway on the first of the 43 barges, the beta model, which will be tested first in Howard’s Pocket near Fraser’s dry-dock facilities, then transported to San Antonio for further testing.

The maiden voyage in San Antonio for the beta craft is expected in February, according to San Antonio-based Rivard Report, an online news source.

DuMars said what is learned from testing the first boat will be incorporated in the final design for the remaining barges. He said he anticipates building the barges in earnest starting in March with the first 20 due on or before mid-September and the remaining 22 due in November — averaging one barge completed each week through the build. That will allow San Antonio to phase out its 1995-era boats.

DuMars said the building project will draw on resources from Northern Engineering and Fraser Shipyards to complete the river barges on the aggressive timeline.

"This project has confirmed the wisdom of bringing together Lake Assault with Fraser Shipyards," Farkas said. He said the combined resources of the historic Great Lakes shipyard, combined with the smaller, nimble aluminum boat maker has benefits such as the ability to scale up quickly with facilities, equipment and staff to deliver for clients.

"I believe this project supports what we all share," Farkas said. He said it’s the kind of project that allows families to live and raise their children in the Twin Ports.

The river boats operate as water taxis, excursion and sightseeing, and entertainment vehicles in and around the River Walk area, DuMars said.

The 27½-foot-by-9½-foot craft, powered by a 10-kilowatt electric outboard motor using 16 lithium ion batteries, accommodates up to 40 passengers and a pilot, and features an extensive fender system to protect the aluminum craft in some of the narrower locations on the San Antonio River.

"We’re excited about our new barges and pleased to have a quality, respected manufacturer like Lake Assault building them for us," said John Jacks, interim director for the city of San Antonio Center City Development and Operations Department. "We have been to Superior to see their operations and are in regular communication with the Lake Assault team. We have developed a strong partnership that we’re confident will make this project a success for our city."

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