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Great year for military construction: will the trend continue?

Jennie Weldin recalls the mass of paperwork struggles that accompanied the first military construction contract that Palmer-based Weldin Construction Inc. landed about 15 years ago.

"Having one agency to work with was overwhelming until we got the hang of it," said Weldin, chief financial officer of the family owned contracting business. "The paperwork flow is pretty incredible."

Now, Weldin Construction is working on several different military contracts at various locations for different agencies, each with its own set of paperwork systems.

"I spent nearly 20 years working in the legal field prior to working full-time at our 'mom-and-pop' business, and I thought that the legal business generated a lot of paperwork. Well, it doesn't hold a candle to government contracting! Of course, that's my point of view as one who handles the paperwork end of contracting," Weldin said.

In addition to new building projects, Weldin Construction has a five-year contract to complete minor construction needs on Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, ranging from "remodeling a bathroom to installing a fuel system," Weldin said.

Called a SABER contract--Simplified Acquisition of Base Engineering Requirements--the agreement allows Weldin crews to complete work without going through a lengthy bidding and review process. The contract covers a minimum of $200,000 and a maximum of $10 million per year.

Weldin Construction also is working with partners Rim Architects, HZA Engineering and Michael Baker Jr. Inc. Engineering on a design/construct contract to build a C-17 Weapon System Trainer, also at Elmendorf.

Work on the $6.9 million, 15,000-square-foot facility began last July and is scheduled to be complete this July, Weldin said.

Once the structure is complete, technical crews will install the flight simulation equipment, Weldin said. "We have a pretty serious deadline because the facility needs to be ready for Boeing to install the simulators."

The facility has highly technical communications requirements and specific humidity requirements, she said. "We understand it is the first in a 'campus' of flight simulators to be constructed at Elmendorf Air Force Base over the next several years," Weldin said.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees most military construction projects in Alaska, another flight simulator, one designed to train pilots of F/A-22s, will be added to the state's construction project list in the next few years. It's one of a number of planned building jobs the Corps is gearing up to release for bidding in the near future.

$400-PLUS MILLION YEAR

The amount of military construction in the next three fiscal years is anticipated to maintain or slightly exceed the $400-plus million (per year) in spending recorded in 2005, according to Greg Smith, chief of the military program and project management branch for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska.

Last year's $400-plus million was somewhat of a record for recent military spending in Alaska. In the fiscal year 2004, the Corps awarded about $300 million for new construction at Alaska's military installments. The Corps awarded about $180 million for military construction the year prior, he said.

Average annual construction budgets related to the military in Alaska typically range around $200 million, Smith said. "We see spikes like this periodically ... this year's Army program is without a doubt the largest program we have."

STRYKER BRIGADE HELPS ECONOMY

The increase in military construction spending can be attributed to development of a Stryker brigade in the U.S. Army Alaska, with most of those quick-response soldiers based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. A number of Army housing projects designed to accommodate that change in troop designation and its resulting increase in soldiers in Alaska contribute to the military construction budget increase, Smith said.

Anchorage-based Neeser Construction worked through the harsh winter months in Fairbanks to complete one of those Army housing projects at Fort Wainwright. The contract calls for completion of 30 houses, each with about 2,500 square feet of living space, to be used for non-commissioned officer housing, according to Neeser project superintendent Bill Williams.

The two-story homes are part of a new subdivision being built on Fort Wainwright, part of the post's efforts to expand and accommodate the new Stryker brigade.

"We're about 98 percent complete," he said, in mid-December. "We foresee being complete in February."

In addition, Neeser is working on three other construction contracts at Fort Wainwright, part of the firm's first work in the Fairbanks area, Williams said.

Those military construction contracts include construction of a 100,000-plus-square-foot pallet-processing building, part of the Stryker brigade's infrastructure allowing rapid deployment of the specialized military equipment. "The building is a really large shell, nothing unusual, but once you're inside the building, there are a lot of different mechanical devices and things that are pretty unusual," Williams said.

Neeser also is working to construct a headquarters building and also a large barracks project at Fort Wainwright. The four contracts total more than $50 million in work for Neeser at the Interior Alaska military post, Williams said.

"There's a lot of work in Fairbanks," he said. "I would say it's a significant increase because of the Stryker brigade."

HOUSING PROJECTS TOP ON LIST

Other housing projects designed to accommodate the rapid influx of soldiers include $48.3 million of temporary modular housing on Fort Richardson and a similar $9.8 million project at Fort Wainwright, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs office. Permanent housing to replace the temporary quarters will follow in the next four fiscal years.

Permanent housing projects planned to be advertised for bid or proposals this summer include two 120-room dormitories at Elmendorf Air Force Base, a 288-person barracks at Fort Richardson, a Whole Neighborhood Revitalization and also family housing at Fort Richardson and two 90-unit family housing projects at Fort Wainwright, according to the Corps.

Other upcoming projects include a C-130 hangar upgrade at Elmendorf, ammunition supply point at Fort Richardson, a library and education center at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks and two range projects at the Donnelly Training area near Fort Greely.

The Corps also is working on plans to offer an Enhanced Use Lease for development of about 100 acres of land inside Fort Greely, land that fronts the Richardson Highway. The federal agency is seeking developers interested in acquiring a 50-year lease, considering factors such as past experience, marketing plans and financial viability.

According to the Corps, the EUL program is a tool used by the military to attract private-sector capital and expertise to acquire, construct or upgrade facilities.

Another large-scale military construction project that began in mid-2002 is scheduled to be complete this March. The Bassett Hospital Replacement project at Fort Wainwright will offer post medical staff a little more than 500,000 square feet of space, according to Bert Bell, president of Fairbanks-based GHEMM Co., which partnered with Dick Pacific on the $178 million project.

"We're still ahead of the military deadline. We're winding down-some areas are pretty well finished," he said in mid-December. "We will interface with the military staff as they take over the building. It's a pretty complex facility."

At its construction peak a year ago, the hospital building project employed about 400 workers, Bell said. "It certainly creates a steady employment base. If anything, one challenge has been to keep it adequately manned because there is a lot of competing work out there."

Williams found a similar tight labor supply at his housing project on Fort Wainwright. "We've had a very hard time finding good qualified workers. All of our subcontractors are having the same problem," he said. "We're stealing them from each other within the company.... I would say it's impacted all the projects to some degree."

Both contracting companies expect a similar situation in the next construction season. "It's a good time for employees in construction," said Bell. "The military has come out with quite a laundry list of work. I think we'll be busy in the next couple years, but I'm not sure what it will be after that. I have a hard time believing it will sustain at this level."
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Title Annotation:construction industry
Author:Liles, Patricia
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:1343
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