Kevin French’s construction company got a boost early in the pandemic just as other businesses were shutting down in Maine.
Landry/French Construction was tapped by Abbott Laboratories to convert the former Olympia Sports distribution center it occupies in Westbrook into a factory where it could produce rapid COVID-19 tests. It was given 90 days to complete the project, its fastest one ever, and it needed a lot of hard-to-find workers to do so.
The company was helped by exemptions to Maine mandates, which declared construction companies essential businesses able to continue more-or-less normal operations, unlike in Massachusetts and New York, where work was stopped. Landry/French was able to bring in idle workers from a mechanical company in New York to complete the project.
“They were basically shut down,” French, CEO of the Scarborough-based construction company, said. “It was a huge win for us.”
Health-related building, public works projects and demand for multifamily housing drove Maine’s construction market during the pandemic and helped minimize business losses. The $46 million in federal stimulus funds for highways spurred projects, while Maine’s highest population growth in nearly two decades increased the need for apartments and multifamily housing in the state.
Maine’s construction industry is recovering better than most of the country, despite ongoing workforce and materials shortages. Construction employment has been relatively flat at 30,600 as of November. That’s about 0.3 percent below pre-pandemic employment levels compared to the national average of 2 percent, Ken Simonson, chief economist with the Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America, said.
While the Abbott project propped up Landry/French’s revenues in 2020, two delayed projects caused a revenue decline last year. But those two projects will help increase revenue this year.
There has been a significant amount of investment in public and private projects in the Northeast, Matt Marks, CEO of the association’s Maine chapter, said. Public works projects have been helped by lesser traffic, with fewer people going into the office, even though they have still been challenged by escalating costs that have caused the department to call off tens of millions of dollars in projects.
Lower traffic volumes helped accelerate the $53 million rehabilitation of the Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95 between Maine and New Hampshire, Paul Merrill, spokesperson for the state transportation department, said. Traffic volumes dropped by almost 50 percent early in the pandemic, but they are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
“The project is still ahead of schedule,” he said.
Other projects got a boost from the 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-use project at 201 Federal St. in downtown Portland will contain 263 apartments, a coworking center, fitness room and a top-floor common area.
Still, the worker shortage has caused him to extend project schedules from 12 months to 16 months, and some contracts contain escalation clauses for rising labor and materials prices.
Completing the indoor part of a project adds a challenge, because only a certain number of people can safely be in a room, said French, whose company is constructing the apartment building for Redfern.
“It’s not known how COVID-19 will affect the workforce,” he said. “We’re trying to not let our guard down.”