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Construction industry is ready to go back to work

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires

Now is a good time to build. With business in the construction industry down about 40 percent over the last two years — both nationally and in Virginia—general contractors are willing to negotiate on price, and manpower is readily available. That was one of the themes under discussion Thursday at the Virginia Beach Convention Center where more than 1,000 people gathered for the Megavention, one of the largest design, construction, real estate conferences in the mid-Atlantic.

This year’s convention not only drew a large crowd; there was mega security. As conference goers arrived, roads leading to the center were blocked by police cars.  Mounted police on horses patrolled the area, and people had to pass through metal detectors to get into the building. The reason for all the security was a memorial service being held at the other end of the center for 30 service members that drew nearly 5,000 people,  including Gov. Bob McDonnell. Among those being remembered were many of the locally based Navy Seals who were killed when the Taliban shot down their helicopter in Afghanistan on Aug. 6.

With hurricane Irene expected to bear down on the Hampton Roads area by Saturday, conference co-chair Ellen Sanders put things in perspective when she said during opening remarks, “This is not what we originally planned. When I stepped out of my car this morning and saw everything, I became emotional. All my stress about the conference is insignificant compared to what is going on around us.”

Among the many exhibitors was Stanley E. Binsted, president of R. E. Lee & Son, Inc. a general contractor in Charlottesville. Binsted said his company has cut its workforce by about 30 to 40 percent, and doesn’t expect a huge spurt of business in the next two years. But it has managed to hang on, doing primarily commercial construction and jobs for the University of Virginia. In these tough times, he says R. E. Lee has negotiated as much as a 5 percent discount on prices. “It’s a good value,” he said. “We do a lot of private, negotiated work.”

Steven C. Vermillion, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Virginia, one of the convention sponsors, said construction employment in Va. is down about 30 percent from two years ago, dropping from 265,000 to 180,000 workers.  “It’s tough now. The federal government is ending stimulus programs, and the work for BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure, an acronym referring to the country’s military realignment initiative) is winding down. We keep telling the feds and the state that this is a great time to build in terms of pricing and manpower,” he said.  One thing that would help put the construction industry back to work is a focus on rebuilding infrastructure, said Vermillion. “I’m not just talking roads. This includes water treatment plants, schools.  Drive around elementary schools and see how many trailers are parked outside.”

Political leaders, including U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.,are starting to talk about a government-backed investment bank to fund infrastructure projects. 
While things have been tough for the construction industry during a down economy, conference keynote speaker, state Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, the former CEO of Virginia Beach-based Amerigroup,  told people to take advantage of the gift of time when things aren’t so busy. “Reassess your strengths. Focus on costs and customer relationships. Spend time with your family.” McWaters filled in for Gov. McDonnell, the scheduled speaker, who attended the military memorial service along with McWaters and other dignitaries.

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