Lockdowns in other states helped Maine’s construction industry recover during the pandemic

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Kevin French’s construction company got a boost early in the pandemic as other Maine businesses shut down.

Landry/French Construction was hired by Abbott Laboratories to convert Olympia Sports’ former distribution center in Westbrook into a factory capable of manufacturing rapid COVID-19 tests. They had 90 days to complete the project, the fastest project ever, and required a lot of hard-to-find labor.

The company was aided by exemptions from Maine mandates that declared construction companies essential businesses that could more or less continue normal operations, unlike in Massachusetts and New York, where work was halted. Landry/French was able to call in idle workers from a New York engineering firm to complete the project.

“They’ve basically been shut down,” said French, CEO of the Scarborough-based construction company. “It was a huge win for us”

Healthcare-related buildings, public works projects, and demand for multifamily housing propelled Maine’s home improvement market during the pandemic and helped minimize business losses. The $46 million in federal highway stimulus funding spurred projects while Maine’s fastest population growth in nearly two decades increased the state’s need for apartments and multi-family homes.

Abbott Laboratories’ Westbrook factory conducting a 15-minute COVID-19 test, BinaxNOW. Landry/French Construction said the rebuild of Olympia Sports’ former distribution center for the test maker brought additional revenue early in the pandemic. Photo credit: Courtesy of Abbott Laboratories

Maine’s construction industry is recovering better than most of the country, despite persistent labor and material shortages. Construction employment was relatively flat at 30,600 in November. That’s about 0.3 percent below pre-pandemic employment levels compared to the national average of 2 percent, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America.

While the Abbott project supported Landry/French’s revenue in 2020, two delayed projects led to a drop in sales last year. But these two projects will help boost sales this year.

There has been a significant amount of investment in public and private projects in the Northeast, said Matt Marks, CEO of the association’s Maine chapter. Public works projects were helped by less traffic as fewer people went into offices, though they were still challenged by escalating costs that caused the department to cancel tens of millions of dollars in projects.

Reduced traffic helped expedite the $53 million rehabilitation of the Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95 between Maine and New Hampshire, said Paul Merrill, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. Traffic levels fell by almost 50 percent at the start of the pandemic, but are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

“The project is still ahead of schedule,” he said.

Other projects got a boost from demand for rental housing, said Jonathan Culley, managing partner of Redfern Properties, a Portland-based real estate, architecture and construction firm. Redfern has developed what will be the tallest building in Maine when completed in 2023. The 18-story, multi-purpose development at 201 Federal St. in downtown Portland will include 263 apartments, a coworking center, a gym and a top-floor community area.

Still, labor shortages have meant he has extended project schedules from 12 to 16 months, and some contracts include price adjustment clauses for rising labor and material prices.

Completing the indoor portion of a project poses an additional challenge because only a certain number of people can be safely in a space, said French, whose company is building the apartment building for Redfern.

“It is unknown how COVID-19 will affect the workforce,” he said. “We try not to neglect our vigilance.”

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