Pandemic yet to slow Fort Smith area construction projects

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,178 views 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt on just about every industry in the nation, state and region. Though the construction has been negatively impacted nationally, locally things seem to be going OK.

recent survey of construction firms by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found more than half of firms have had projects halted, and 74% of businesses have sought loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to retain staff.

“Owners are not only halting many current construction projects but are canceling a growing number of projects that have not yet started,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “Inevitably, that has caused a growing number of contractors to furlough or terminate jobsite workers.”

The combination of project cancellations and shortages of equipment or materials is forcing nearly 40% of firms to lay off employees, according to the survey, which was conducted April 6-9 and had 830 respondents.

In Fort Smith, construction seems to be going strong with houses continuing to pop up in new subdivisions and major projects continuing on schedule or even ahead of schedule. George Watts with Hoar Program Management (HPM) of Dallas, the project manager hired by Fort Smith Public Schools to oversee district-wide construction projects made possible by a a 5.558 millage increase voted for in 2018, said projects underway at Northside High School, Southside High School and Ramsey Junior High should proceed faster than expected because students, staff and faculty are not on site throughout the day.

“This seems like a good opportunity to potentially accelerate work now that the school academic year is being done remotely. The buildings won’t have an active population in them, so we are looking for every activity that we can to try to reel that in and hopefully gain some legs up on the schedule,” Watts said.

Sandy Dixon, owner of Fort Smith-based Turn Key Construction Management, said though she has heard of some architects and contractors who have had projects cancelled or put on hold because of the pandemic, Turn Key has not felt the sting.

“We’ve only had one owner who wants to slow the start date but not put it on hold. Other than that we have not seen a slow down,” Dixon said. “We don’t know where this is going to go, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Rod Coleman, chairman of ERC Holdings of Fort Smith, said construction is going strong. What he has seen is delays in getting material and less materials available. Coleman has also seen a slowdown in home purchases.

“I think it is affecting the buying side of things,” Coleman said. “People aren’t going to open houses. They aren’t driving around looking at houses. They are doing more virtual tours of property.”

One thing the pandemic has done in just about every industry is make people more safety conscious of viruses. Dixon said at the Southside High School project, workers have their temperature checked twice a day. At all work sites there is hand sanitizer and numerous safety protocols in place, she added.

“Fort Smith schools wanted to know what our safety procedures were,” Dixon said.

A nationwide safety stand down implemented by Association of General Contractors was held April 9. Nationwide, every commercial job shut down, and all workers, those from the Fort Smith area included, went through a COVID-19 protocol training, Watts said. Crews are undertaking best industry practices, which follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) guidelines, both Watts and Dixon said.

Though some workers voiced concern early on in the pandemic, there are not many concerns among staff now, Dixon said.

“We have some big sites with big crews,” she said. “We are spreading them out, so we can practice social distancing as much as possible.”

Dixon said she was fortunate to not have any workers test positive for the virus.

“We are prepared to close down a site if we have to, but we haven’t had any one test positive,” Dixon said. “We are coming through this much better than expected. I am happy.”

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