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CT Construction Digest Friday October 22, 2021

City officials tour new Bristol Arts and Innovation Magnet School, see progress on reconstruction

Dean Wright

BRISTOL – City officials took a tour of the new Bristol Arts and Innovation Magnet School’s interior Wednesday to get a glance at the project’s progress and theater reconstruction.

“What was really needed was a new gymnasium because the old one doesn't conform to any physical education or team sports dimensions. We added a gym in the back,” said QA+M Architecture Architect Angela Cahill.

Cahill said among other desperately needed spaces in the old Bristol High School building was backstage space.

“The way the original building was constructed, the back of the stage wall was the back of the building and there was no place for performers to prepare and get into costume or build sets or anything that goes on in the backstage,” said Cahill. “We’re adding a two-story backstage addition that will include a scene shop and a costume shop and all that green space that performers need.”

The architect said that crews “pretty much gutted” the building.

“However, when you say gutted we didn’t knock down any of the demising walls between spaces because this building has such great bones,” said Cahill. “We are dealing with some smaller classroom sizes because this is 100 years-old. We would build an eight, 900 or maybe 1,000 square foot classroom now. Some of these classrooms are 700 and some are 800.”

Cahill said there were still “beautiful high ceilings” and “great proportions” to the classroom spaces, however.

“I believe that now all the (utility) services are coming to the building and now it’s getting detailed with construction inside,” she said.

The school is projected to be finished in June 2022.

Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu joined the tour of the building along with City Councilman Greg Hahn.

“I had not been there for a few months,” she said. “It was great to see the progress being made and hear that there are approximately 100 people working on site every day with almost 25% of them being from Bristol. Those are extra benefits to these projects. The school and theater are going to be great additions to what is already a developing downtown.”

Tours revealed that the upper most floors of the school are beginning to be outfitted with dry wall as well as wood hutches for storage and other details. Lower floors still have steel framing exposed as workers continue to pull the structure together a piece at a time.

Ridgefield approves $2.9 million allocation from federal funds for sewer project

Alyssa Seidman

RIDGEFIELD — A resounding “aye” echoed through Veterans Park auditorium Wednesday night as residents voted to approve $2.9 million of federal American Rescue Plan monies for the Route 7 sewer project. Only a handful of “nays” could be heard from the audience.

The allocation will partially fund the construction of a new force-main sewer line connecting the District II plant on Route 7 to the upgraded District I plant on South Street. Voters approved an estimated $48 million for the projects in 2018, but the actual costs came in at more than $55 million, according to calculations from Ridgefield’s Water Pollution Control Authority.

The lowest bid for the Route 7 project came from M&O Construction Co., Inc. in New Milford at $8.3 million, approximately 40 percent higher than the initial estimate. The WPCA allocated $500,000 to narrow the funding gap, and additional grant funding could shave between $900,000 and $1.5 million off the total. The authority also ensured that any grants or rebates related to the project would be used to defray its overall cost, meaning the town would use less of the federal money.

Before public comment, WPCA Chairwoman Amy Siebert explained the need for the project and why town leaders didn’t want to delay its construction by going out to bid a second time.

The goal is to close the District II plant, construct a new pump station and pipe that wastewater to South Street for treatment. The consolidation addresses new regulations and environmental standards at the state and federal levels, while returning long-term operational cost savings, she said.

Since the price of building materials, equipment and labor has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectation is any new bids would be higher than those that came in initially, Siebert said. She added that if ARPA funds weren’t allocated to bring the project to fruition, the town could potentially lose state funding and be subject to effluent permit violations.

“If we can get people’s support for this, this can help us not have to increase sewer user rates or taxes,” Siebert said. “Those of us who are on septic,” she added while raising her hand, “benefit as well by having these facilities upgraded for when our septic tanks are pumped out.”

Resident Susan Coco applauded this “strategic use” of ARPA funding while noting the project’s vitalness to the future of Ridgefield.

Resident Steve Jameson took issue with the proposal as the project would only benefit those serviced by the town’s sewage system, he said.

Resident Ed Tyrrell, the meeting’s moderator, voted against the appropriation. He said the project’s increased cost is not a result of COVID, but rather “bad estimating on the part of the WPCA.”

He also criticized town leaders for bringing the expenditure below $3 million and prompting a town meeting when a referendum would have provided “full public scrutiny.” “It violates the spirit of our charter,” he said.

Glori Norwitt, commissioner of the Ridgefield Economic and Community Development Commission, encouraged voters to look at the bigger picture.

“The police station, the fire station, the Boys & Girls Club, Main (Street) businesses are in the area served by this directly,” she said. “Everyone in this town will ... benefit from the sewer project.”

Massive warehouse proposed in South Windsor

Terry Corcoran

Aproposal to build a 359,000-square-foot warehouse in South Windsor is pending before two town land use boards.

The site plan application of property owner UW Vintage Lane II LLC of Glastonbury calls for building the warehouse on 30.3 acres bordered by Talbot Lane and Governors Highway.

The project, including building and parking, would occupy 5.3 acres of the land and have 54 loading docks, 118 parking spaces for trailers and 269 car spaces.

The owner has yet to say who would occupy the warehouse, but a fiscal impact report on the project from Donald Poland of brokerage firm Goman & York points to an ecommerce distribution site.

“Industrial space, especially warehouse and distribution space, is experiencing considerable growth and robust demand,” Poland wrote. “This is, in part, the result of Connecticut’s location between the New York and Boston markets, continued increases in ecommerce, and changing needs and requirements for modern warehouse and distribution space.”

The principal of UW Vintage Lane is Horseshoe Lane Associates LLC, which consists of Robert and Gianni Urso of South Windsor.

The Planning and Zoning Commission began a hearing on UW Vintage Lane’s request for site plan approval on Oct. 12 and will continue it Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. The property owner has agreed to a 65-day extension that gives the commission until Nov. 20 to act on the application.

The site plan application is also pending before the town’s Inland Wetlands/Conservation Commission, which continued its hearing Oct. 20. That commission must first approve the application before the Planning and Zoning Commission can act on it.

Several residents who live near the proposed warehouse expressed concerns about noise, truck traffic and the project’s impact on wildlife.

The properties slated for development are at 5 Talbot Lane, which is 1.29 acres; 25 Talbot Lane, 2.28 acres; 475 Governor’s Highway, 3.87 acres; and 551 Governor’s Highway, 22.93 acres. UW Vintage Lane acquired the parcels in March for a total of $2 million.

Construction's career crisis: How did we get here?

Zachary Phillips

A four-decade veteran of the construction industry, Greg Sizemore says he doesn't remember a time when there wasn't a "Help Wanted" sign on most jobsites.

When Sizemore — now the vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors — started out as a laborer, he thought construction would just be a summer job. He recalls contractors looking for skilled and unskilled workers. Fast forward to today and the problem has only increased.

The issue is widespread: 92% of contractors have reported difficulty finding construction workers and of those, 42% said they have turned down work because of it, according to the most recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index.

Here, Construction Dive takes a look at the historical factors leading to the crisis and the issues, both internal and external to the industry, that have led to the challenge to staff the country's jobsites.

The numbers

The construction careers crisis is one that has worsened for decades, but, like so much else, has also been worsened by the pandemic.

The number of construction workers in the U.S. hit an all-time high at 7.7 million workers in April 2006, until the Great Recession caused the number of workers to plummet. 2011 marked the low point of construction employment, with 2.1 million fewer workers than April 2006, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors of America.

Beginning with 2011, however, employment numbers began steadily increasing. Total nonfarm payroll employment set records every month for five years through February 2020, Simonson said, until March of that year. The number of workers, seasonally adjusted, dropped from 7.6 million in February 2020 to 6.6 million in March 2020, a roughly 14% decline at the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Construction has begun to climb out of that hole, but it still has yet to reach pre-pandemic employment numbers, while still seeing high demand for skilled labor that hasn't been met. 

More focus on higher education

One of the longest leading causes for construction's understaffing issue began about 40 to 50 years ago, when the country moved from an industrial to a post-industrial, service-based business economy, said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for AGC.

The notion that every student should go to college rapidly spread, Turmail said, which was supported by the introduction of the GI Bill. 

The mark of success for many parents and their children has become the four-year degree, Sizmore said, and construction, plumbing, electrical work, masonry and other trades have become jobs for "someone else's kid."

In 1969, there were 8 million students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 5.8 million of which were full-time students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2019, there were a total of 19.6 million of those students enrolled, with 12 million as full-time students.

In addition, during those five decades, the number of women in college has skyrocketed: 57% of higher education students in 2019 were female. Construction has historically struggled to attract women to its workforce.

Less focus on the trades

The focus on higher education has led to high schools emphasizing reading and mathematics testing, both for the schools and for students, which has lessened the importance of, or removed altogether, classes helpful to the trades, like woodshop, said Anirban Basu, chief economist for ABC.

That's resulted in a large funding gap as well, Turmail said.

"For every dollar that the federal government puts in career technical education, which is about $20 billion a year, they put six into college — supporting the pre-K through 12 to college track," Turmail told Construction Dive. "So, the funding gap is $120 billion to $20 billion ... even though only about a third of the jobs in the United States require a four-year college degree."

Nevertheless, Sizemore pointed out, college is not the best route to a career for everyone. As of October 2019, 36 million Americans had some college education, but no degree and were no longer enrolled, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Others can take more than four years to finish their bachelor's degree. Those years have potential for a burgeoning worker to start and complete an apprenticeship and have a career.

Working conditions

"We've culturally devalued careers where you work with your hands and get dirty and you're exposed to the elements," Turmail said.

Construction is potentially dangerous. The hours are long and at times inconsistent. The workplace is outdoors and frequently moving. Workers can sustain long-term injuries or strain, even if they don't experience injuries on site. 

It's not just that working conditions can be dangerous, Turmail noted. The average construction jobsite opens before public transportation begins running each day. For a young person, getting up at 4 a.m. to go to work, while potentially not having a car, can feel like more of a sacrifice than someone with experience who's providing for a family, and is used to being woken up by their kids.

That combined with construction failing to demonstrate that it is a path to the American middle class, Basu said, has made it a hard selling point.

Other groups pour time, effort and money into recruitment services to show trade schools are a real option for high schoolers, but, Sizemore said, if they're not in the right ZIP code or sphere of influence with a local contracting group or trade group, its simply harder to get to those students and encourage them to take a chance on the trades.

Retention troubles

Some potential employees never even give construction work a real shot.

"I've heard (AGC) members say that, 'We have to hire two people for every position we need to fill because one's going to bounce out by the end of the week,'" Turmail said.

But where do those workers go? Turmail jested that they may turn to Starbucks, where the initial pay can be comparable, but they don't have the long-term career opportunities that they'd have in construction. Those who can find jobs in energy and manufacturing often choose positions in those industries, he said. 

That happened during the Great Recession as well, Basu said, as many workers left construction when there was an oil and natural gas boom, after a brief labor surplus of brought on by the economic collapse.

Other workers make career choices, Basu said, about the working conditions they want. Amazon has built fulfillment centers across the country, investing heavily during the pandemic and posting thousands of jobs. Though not known for stellar working conditions, Amazon warehouse jobs may be more enticing to workers who prefer to work indoors even though the pay is less, Basu said.

Retirement on the horizon

But retention doesn't just have to do with those leaving for other careers. The workforce is getting older, as the median age of construction workers reached 41, according to an analysis by the National Association of Home Builders.

During the pandemic, uncertainty over health and safety led workers across industries to avoid work if possible. Federal unemployment aid made that decision easier. 

Others with those same concerns "threw in the proverbial towel" and retired, Basu said. Knowing they were close to retirement already, many older workers saw the value of their assets, such as houses, appreciate during the pandemic. That made the decision to retire easier.