Eagle work could mean 1,900 jobs
EAGLE, Colorado “-Local contractor Jim Foley doesn’t know if he would see work from the proposed Eagle River Station development in Eagle, Colorado. But at this point, he’s willing to support the project based on its employment potential.
“Work is very slow right now, just ask anyone in the construction business,” Foley said. “It would be a good thing. They would be buying lumber from local companies and excavating material from local companies.”
Michele Evans, president of the Avon-based Evans Chaffee Construction, agrees.
“Eagle River Station would absolutely help the outlook for construction and the employment future in Eagle County,” she said.
She says that though companies may successfully navigate 2009, the next few years still present a great risk for lack of work, more layoffs and higher unemployment rates throughout the valley.
“Eagle River Station would supply a large number of construction jobs as well as operational jobs. This has a ripple effect for other jobs within our community,” Evans said.
Trinity/RED Eagle, the developers of the proposed Eagle River Station project estimate their project would mean 1,900 construction jobs ” including road construction crews, framers, electricians, plumbers, delivery drivers and more. Once the shopping center is built, they estimate another 1,584 full-time and part-time jobs would become a permanent part of the local economy.
That’s a lot of work, acknowleged Mary Cunningham of the Colorado Work Force Center, the local unemployment office in Edwards. She noted that as of last week there were are officially 2,029 unemployed workers in Eagle County. And that figure might actually understate the local unemployment rate, Cunningham notes, because it only reflects the workers who have filed paperwork.
While a large number of the county’s unemployment claims come from construction industry workers, other professions have also been hit hard by the current economic downturn.
According to figures from the Colorado Department of Labor, Eagle County’s current unemployment rate is 6.1 percent. While that’s lower than the statewide rate of 7.9 percent, it’s much higher than it was only a few months ago.
The downturn in the national economy has prompted a shift in the Eagle River Station dialogue. When Eagle River Station first began its lengthy public hearing process, the most pressing issues included employee housing and employee availability.
More recently, construction contractors have shown up at meetings to hand out business cards to the developers. Talk has turned to the number of jobs that the proposal would generate, rather than questions about where employees would come from.
“There’s a lot more willingness from people to think ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity there, if not for me, then maybe for my neighbor,'” said Paul Witt, local spokesman for Trinity/RED Eagle.
But even as the idea of 1,900 construction jobs is bandied about, locals question whether that work will go to the folks who live here.
“We think it is imperative that developers and organizations look to use local architects, general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers as much as possible for construction projects and not just because we fall into that category,” Evans said. “Even if there was a small premium to hire local, it would result in a better bottom line for the developer and the community.”
Witt noted that Trinity/RED Eagle doesn’t have a construction arm to build Eagle River Station and the company will be in the market for a general contractor. RED Development, the Kansas City, Mo. firm that is one of the Eagle River Station principals, has worked with many different construction companies to build shopping centers across the country, Witt said.
RED Development has built 20 centers in Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, Arizona, California and Colorado. In building those 20 projects, the company has only done repeat business with a particular general contractor three times.
“They try to work with local companies as much as possible,” Witt said.
Even if the general contractor comes from out of town, Witt notes that company would likely hire local workers. That would be a big stimulus, he argues, especially since Colorado’s unemployment rate is the highest it’s been in 22 years.
A stimulus, yes, but it would be a short term bump for the local construction industry, warns Don Cohen of the Eagle County Economic Council.
“My biggest question is after a big commerical center is built, will there be another project coming forward?” says Cohen.
He characterized the Eagle River Station project as an anomoly in the construction job scene and noted similar large scale projects will continue to bump the numbers ” new school or government buildings for example.
But in the short term, Cohen noted construction jobs are lean right now and Eagle River Station would definitely add to the supply, if the developer makes good on the promise to hire local.
During these tough economic times, Evans says it’s critical for local projects to support the local construction work force.
“We have seen developers and organizations commit to hiring a high percentage of their project local, follow through on their word and be able to do it without paying a premium to do so. The payback to them has been significant,” she said.
“The Eagle County Schools recently made this commitment to Brush Creek Elementary School and that project was successfully able to award a high percentage of the work to local firms while getting an exceptional value on the pricing.
“The trick is to have the right folks on board that can manage that process and know how to get competitive local pricing from subcontractors and suppliers.”
And once construction is complete, Witt says Eagle County can use the estimated 1,500 long-term jobs Eagle River Station will bring.
Noting Eagle River Station has proposed more than a half-million square feet of commerical space, that job number is plausible. It would likely be split between full and part-time positions, he says.
“But is retail going to create the kind of jobs we’d like to see in Eagle County? The answer is no,” Cohen says.
In all likelihood, Cohen believes the long-term Eagle River Station jobs will provide second incomes to families. “Ultimately, its going to create jobs. Will it create high quality jobs or career ladders? Probably not.”
Eagle River Station would give some downvalley resort workers the opportunity to earn similar pay without a commute, Cohen adds, making it more difficult for the upvalley resorts to find workers.
Taken as a whole, Cohen believes the Eagle River Station impact would be a “slight net positive” for Eagle County’s job market. Some currently unemployed construction workers would likely find work and there would be additional jobs during a time when unemployment is rising. But, he adds, the shopping center proposal isn’t going to be the long term solution to the area’s current job loss problems.
“This is not a white knight scenario,” Cohen says. “It’s probably not going to hurt, but it might help a little.”
For 40 years, Eagle’s Community Helpline has been a living example of the axiom that giving begins at home.