Builders Keep Busy but Could Use More Work

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The level of commercial construction in the region is mixed, reports Kevin Reilly, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

For the most part, the volume of business at construction and architecture firms in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys is where it stood a year ago.

“Overall, it’s OK,” Reilly says. “We have some guys who are pretty busy and some who are not as busy as they would like.”

Man-hours tell the same story, he continues. Through the first half of The Builders’ fiscal year, which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, man-hours have held “pretty close” to last year’s levels. And they have never recovered from the drop-off in 2009, Reilly reports.

Much of the work that occupies local contractors centers on building for the health care sector, he says. Earlier this decade, school construction and retail projects drove much of the construction work.

“We have one really large project that’s just starting in our area,” the Clean Energy Future plant in Lordstown, Reilly says.“We’ll see a significant amount of hours starting the second half of the year. … That’ll be a real nice project for the area.”

At peak, more than 500 craftsmen will be on the construction job, which is projected to run through February 2018.

Meanwhile, those in the commercial construction industry offer mixed assessments of the market.

Alex Downie & Sons Co., Youngstown, is “somewhat busier” this year than last year, says its president, Ted Downie. The company’s main project this year, beyond “our everyday stuff with our normal customers,” is the $5 million renovation of the Central Branch of the Youngstown YMCA.

The project is scheduled for completion by year-end. During demolition, workers exposed the former northern exterior brick wall of the original 100-year-old structure and sections of a long-forgotten staircase in another part of the building.

“We did extensive investigation to flush out all these things, but until you actually open up the existing conditions, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to find,” says the company treasurer, Tom Downie.

As did several of his fellow contractors, Doug Lumsden, president of Davis International, Boardman, reports business this year is consistent.

“We are a low-volume contractor but we’re as busy this year as we were last year,” Lumsden says. “I wouldn’t say we’re blowing the doors off but I would say we’re doing well.”

Davis specializes in warehousing and cold-storage projects. “We have somewhat of a diversified business but those are our two biggest specialties,” he says.

Lumsden is uncertain whether milder winters such as the region experienced this year helped his industry. “By the time you know you have a mild winter, it’s a little late to react,” he says. “It certainly helps you if you have something in progress.”

Mercy Health-Youngstown’s new Howland Medical Center, which broke ground earlier this spring, is “the high point for us so far” at Jack Gibson Construction Co., Warren, says its president, Jim Breese.

Business to date is comparable to 2015, which was a good year as well, Breese says.

“I’d characterize the bidding to be good. There are a lot of good projects to be bidding right now,” he says.

This year Jack Gibson Construction has seen more private projects as compared to the public construction work it completed last year, he says. Some activity results from pent-up demand. One manufacturer moving forward with a project had deferred expansion. Now he’s going forward with improvements, according to Breese.

Dawn Ochman, president of Dawn Inc., Warren, says her company is “extremely busy.” Volume is 200% ahead of last year for the business, which specializes in contracts for the federal government, and it has hired three employees in the past month.

Current projects include a parking lot at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, construction and renovations at the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station – including interior renovations to a three-story building – and work on the Joseph F. Weis Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

“We got into this market five to six years ago and we’ve really taken a foothold,” Ochman says.

Shenango Steel Buildings in West Middlesex, Pa., recently completed the structure that houses Solar Atmospheres of Western PA’s new vacuum furnace. Overall business is “maybe down a bit but close to the same as last year,” reports general manager Brad Campbell.

“Things are starting to get a little busier for us,” he says, typical for the company each spring.

Campbell points to two factors that could account for the depressed activity. Cutbacks in the oil and gas industry have lowered demand for buildings in that market, he says. And, the steel industry raised its prices twice in the past month.

“Those two things might have slowed down some of the growth we might have seen, but I’m hopeful,” he says. “Everybody needs buildings.”

John Ciardi, president of Ciardi Co. in Boardman, reports his activity is moderate. “We were busier last year. It seems like it’s starting to pick up now,” he says.

The company, which primarily does renovation work, is doing “major renovations” in a building Ciardi declined to identify except to say that it recently changed hands. The new owners are “turning it into a first-class space,” he says.

Ciardi speculates that the presidential election-year might be affecting workflow and he expects activity to increase as November gets closer.

He also anticipates more activity where Youngstown neighborhoods are engaged in redevelopment efforts.

“The city is starting to make a push. Youngstown has been trying to come back and we are excited to see all the things happening in town,” he says. “We certainly are trying to be a part of that.”

Bruce Sekanick, architect and secretary-treasurer at Phillips/Sekanick Architects in Warren, reports business this year is about the same as it was last year. “We haven’t seen a real strong increase in any work but it’s been consistent,” he says.

The bulk of the firm’s work is with ongoing clients who continue to reinvest in their businesses, whether corporate renovations or expanding their network, Sekanick says. He cites Covelli Enterprises, which recently announced its purchase of the Panera Bread restaurants in Greater Cincinnati

“We’re seeing a lot of our continuous work on the restaurant end for a variety of different restaurant chains or franchises, including Panera,” he remarks. “And we’re working on a new prototype for O’Charley’s in Strongsville that’s underway now.”

In addition, Phillips/Sekanick is completing work on the new Cafaro Co. headquarters in Niles.

“There’s a lot of interest in renovations or expansions on the corporate end,” he notes.

Randy Baker, president of Baker Bednar Snyder & Associates, an architecture, engineering and design firm in Howland, also reports his company’s volume is consistent with last year.

“Last year was a pretty good year and this year is on a par with last year,” Baker says.

Among the company’s projects are Town Center at Firestone Farms in Columbiana, new and renovated automobile dealerships and senior housing projects, including Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Retirement Services, which recently broke ground in Poland on a $7 million expansion.

Baker points to “a fair amount of optimism” about the economy that is driving work.

“An economic rebound has occurred,” he says. “There were years when there was not much activity and as a result, some of our clients are making up for holding off on doing projects.”

Baker sees some benefit from this year’s milder winter. On one of the firm’s major projects, the contractor could work though the winter and move the completion schedule ahead, allowing other phases to be completed sooner.

“It helped everyone’s attitude as well,” he adds.

Pictured: The renovation of the YMCA Central Branch will open up the front of the structure with more windows and street views.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.