Construction work lagging in midcoast region

Posted March 31, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — In a typical year, spring is the time when the ground thaws and builders along the Maine coast start lining up a busy summer’s worth of work.

But this year is anything but typical.

Christian Andrus owns Pine Ridge Carpentry in Hope, where he and his crew build custom homes and cabinets. He has had to adapt quickly to the new economy, which includes much more competition for jobs which are starting to pay less. And while his phones are still ringing, that’s not necessarily good.

“Our phone rings pretty regularly with people looking for work,” he said last week. “We also get people coming in who say they’ve just lost a big project. I know there’s a lot of people out there suffering.”

Andrus said that while he has long-term optimism that the economy will rebound, that doesn’t pay the bills right now.

“I’m always worried about it,” he said.

He’s not the only one to be concerned. As the construction slowdown affects the midcoast area’s multitudes of plumbers, electricians, landscapers, painters and other subcontractors, officials are wondering what will be the ultimate result for the region.

“It’s absolutely a critical piece,” regional economic expert Chris Shrum of Eastern Maine Development Corp. said of what he terms “the building trades.”

Unemployment figures are often a barometer of economic health, Shrum said, and right now the barometer is suddenly falling.

“For 15 years, Knox County enjoyed wonderful economic growth. Our unemployment rate in those years was far less than the state average,” he said. “But in December of last year, the Knox County unemployment rate exceeded the state average for the first time in 15 years.”

A lot of that is because of the construction slowdown, he said.

Is the change all bad?

“Time will tell,” said Camden Town Planner Jeffrey Nims. “Sometimes a slowdown isn’t a bad thing. Some people thought that things were getting a little too crazy here at one point.”

Nims took his post in 1992, just as Camden entered into a construction spree that only slowed down a few years ago after topping out at 40 new homes a year.

“We were booming before MBNA came into town,” Nims said. “Once MBNA came, we were frenetic.”

Recently, much of Camden’s new construction looks like retirement or exclusive vacation homes, and those numbers — seven last year — are dropping just as unemployment creeps upward.

While it might be hard to feel too sympathetic for those who can’t afford to build fancy vacation homes, contractors say that much of the money spent in Maine stays in Maine. Conversely, everyone feels the pinch when construction slows down.

Jill Goodwin is the operations manager at her 50-year-old family business, Monroe & Goodwin Contractors.

“We laid off half our crew for the winter,” she said. “We don’t usually lay anybody off. That’s very unusual.”

Goodwin said that of the crew still working, they are keeping busy with smaller projects including building a garage and some renovation work.

“In this economy, you take what you can get,” she said.

Some contractors feel that philosophy can be taken too far. John Davee, the president of Camden’s Maine Coast Construction, is adamantly opposed to the very low bids he is seeing for public works jobs. Contractors are bidding with no markup because they don’t want to have layoffs, Davee said.

“They can’t survive on zero markup or zero overhead,” he said. “Some low-bid contractors manipulate prices by various methods. Buyer beware.”

The sheer volume of bidders for each project can be overwhelming, too. Davee said that he was one of 14 bidders for a recent project. They may not all be from Maine, either.

Shrum said that he knows of a Massachusetts company bidding here because there’s not enough work there.

“That would never have happened a year ago,” he said.

But despite the ominous economic signs, he and others are looking forward to the summer.

“Obviously, a lot of our economy is based on the summer,” Shrum said. “People are going to want to put their boats in the water and repair their homes. But if we don’t see that uptick — that’s going to be very telling.”

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