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PUBLIC COFFERS CONTINUE TO FUEL AREA PROJECTS

The forecast is solid for the local construction industry, with a major influx of public works projects hitting the market in 1999.

A $63 million expansion of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park has already begun; a $24 million Inner Harbor project is scheduled to launch this summer, and construction of the new Erie County Court House could begin later this year. Throw in the demolition of the former Westinghouse facility on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, and it looks to be a good year.

Though 1999 is not projected to eclipse the period earlier in the decade when the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Roswell Park Cancer Institute projects were in full swing, it looks like a good year to be employed in building trades.

"The focus for everyone this summer will be finding the manpower. This year we may be reaching beyond where we have in the prior years for manpower," said Mark Balling, a senior project manager for Bovis Construction in Buffalo.

Several other major projects, including the Peace Bridge expansion and possibly a new convention center and zoo, could add to the health of the local construction market for years to come.

This will also be an important year for labor relations in local building trades. The major three-year union contracts, such as those with the bricklayers and electricians, expire in May.

James C. Logan, executive director of the Construction Exchange for Buffalo and Western New York, said the past three contracts have been negotiated with little unrest.

"We are looking into the possibility of entering early negotiations this year to get those contracts resolved," said Logan, whose association represents 460 area construction firms.

The foundation for the local market in 1998 was road work and school construction. A new state formula for school capital projects issued in 1998 sparked numerous expansions and new builds.

The state's new formula raised the proportion of state construction aid by as much as 10 percent for many school districts. The math leaves the state picking up the bulk of the tab for capital improvements in most districts.

"That has had an impact on contractors at all levels," said Lewis E. Markle III, president and COO of Ciminelli-Cowper Construction Management. "It's like a window of opportunity, and every (school district) that has a need sees that and is trying to capitalize on that."

Many aging school buildings constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s need renovations. Schools also need remodeling to meet technological advances, such as new wiring and computer laboratories.

The K-12 school projects accounted for the biggest chunk of Ciminelli-Cowper's revenue in 1998. But the company also has several major school projects on the docket in 1999, including a $30 million project for the Chautauqua Lake district.

Buffalo residents will see a new, 180,000-square-foot Northwest Academy built in 1999 for about $23 million.

Road builders also had a good year in 1998, with major projects, including Niagara Falls Boulevard and the I-190. Several road projects are scheduled to continue in 1999.

One fact is apparent in the local market: Because the big local projects are all roads, schools, courthouses and state-funded economic development initiatives, the taxpayers are doing most of the investing.

"We'd obviously like to see the opposite, with the private sector investing and expanding their businesses. But the market's not going that way right now," Logan said.

One area of private-sector investing has been in senior housing, such as the $100 million Canterbury Woods retirement community and several other assisted-living communities under construction around the region, including projects in Orchard Park, Aurora and Amherst.

The 140,000-square-foot CanFibre Ltd. fiberboard factory will be constructed in the steel country of Lackawanna this year. The $117 million project is the largest private-sector investment in Lackawanna in 25 years.

Several office buildings in Amherst and near the airport are also scheduled for 1999. Two new business parks that opened in Amherst last year could spark further development.

Those private-sector jobs are a start, but a far cry from the growth seen in many other markets.

"It's not until you go to the other markets that you realize how robust their economies are. Unless we bring money into this area and there's growth in the area, we're just reshuffling the money that we already have," said Samuel Savarino, president of ADF Construction Co. in Amherst.

ADF opened an office in Charlotte, N.C., last year. The company is also embarking on projects in South Carolina, Kentucky and other markets.

Western New York remains ADF's primary market, however, and the company had an excellent year here in 1998, Savarino said.

The demanding pace of the stadium project, which needs to be completed by August, along with the school projects and other work peaking in the busy summer season could lead to labor shortages. The stadium project is employing about 70 subcontractors.

"There is a national phenomenon going on that points to a shortage of skilled labor over the coming years," Markle said. "I believe that we are starting to see the first signs of that appearing here in Western New York. . . . It will become apparent because of this large volume of work coming down the pipeline."

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