Getting back on track has proven to be a challenge the past five years, but the local construction industry is slowly improving because of an influx of private sector projects.
While still nowhere near the local construction boom between 2004 and 2007, this spring and summer has the potential of being busier than the years following the global financial meltdown in the fall of 2008.
"I would say the best way to describe the construction environment is that contractors are cautiously optimistic," said Liz Evans, northern district manager for the Association of General Contractors. "We're not seeing as many public projects, but there are more from the private sector."
Many of the big projects currently underway are in the north part of Bellingham, including two new hotels, the expansion of Bellingham International Airport and the remodel of Bellis Fair shopping mall. That's in addition to Lynden expecting to begin construction of an approximately $27 million water treatment plant in June. Several apartment buildings also are under construction, mostly around Bellingham.
While private sector projects appear to be on the rise, local contractors are hoping one large government project comes through: Western Washington University's $69.3 million proposal to remodel its Carver Gymnasium building. But as of last week, it hasn't been in any of the proposed state budget proposals, making funding unlikely, said Sherry Burkey, director of legislative relations for Western.
"I have to say we've been very frustrated," said Burkey, noting that it's one of the busiest buildings on campus and at the top of a prioritized list of capital projects on Washington campuses. "It's in desperate need of being renovated."
The building, constructed in 1936, may be known for its basketball gym, but 268 academic classes are taught to about 7,700 students in the building each year. Athletics occupy only 16 percent of the facility, according to WWU documents.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said he is working hard to get the project into the capital budget, but it is getting close to the end of the legislative session.
"It will be difficult for numerous reasons, but I'm not giving up on it yet," Ericksen said.
The proposed renovation will add more classrooms and lab spaces, provide seismic upgrades and make it more accessible for those with disabilities. The project would provide about 140 construction jobs, peaking at around 200, during the 16 months of work, according to WWU.
"I think there's been a misunderstanding that the project is about the gym, and that is not the case," Burkey said, noting that the community has been "great" about writing legislators to let them know about the project's importance. She said the other factor is the size and overall cost of the project. WWU has looked into ways to break it into smaller phases, but without success to this point.
The key cost is the needed seismic upgrades, which Burkey said are becoming a matter of safety. If the funding doesn't come through for the project in this budget, WWU will continue to try to find other ways to get funding, or seek alternatives if the building becomes unsafe to use.
"We're tightly squeezed on campus," Burkey said. "There is no way we can find room for 268 classes."
PRIVATE PROJECTS BOUNCING BACK
In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, private sector construction projects quickly dried up across the U.S., making construction one of the hardest-hit industries between 2009 and 2012. For Whatcom County, several large public sector projects helped keep some local construction companies busy, including roadwork on the Guide Meridian before the 2010 Winter Olympics, remodeling work at U.S.-Canada border crossings and several large school projects.
By 2012 new public projects had started to slow, but the slack was picked up in the private sector: BP Cherry Point had major work done throughout the year and Regal Cinemas built a movie theater in the Barkley District.
For 2013, some of the economic data point to what could be a strong spring and summer. In the first three months of 2013, Bellingham issued building permits for projects valued at $35.5 million, the highest first-quarter total since 2008.
However, some data show the industry is still dealing with weakness when it comes to employment. According to the Washington State Employment Security Department, 4,900 people were employed in construction in January in Whatcom County, the lowest monthly total since the start of the recession in 2008. January is typically the slowest month of the year for construction work, but it is an indication that more ramping up will be needed this spring to match last year's peak number of 6,600 workers.
While several construction projects have started, April is typically the time of year general contractors are bidding on projects. Steve Isenhart, co-owner of Tiger Construction, said he's noticed fewer out-of-town contractors bidding on local projects this year, but it's still a competitive process.
Evans said local contractors continue to look outside Whatcom County for jobs, particularly in places where construction has bounced back stronger, like the Seattle area. She is optimistic construction will continue to rebound locally, particularly if big projects like Bellingham waterfront development and a new county jail move forward. Also, if the state continues to invest in education in future budgets, that could mean more infrastructure improvements.
"Those projects have the potential to make a big difference in this area," Evans said.
MAP OF MAJOR PROJECTS
View Major construction projects in Whatcom County in a larger map