In Anniston, the walls of the Justin Sollohub Justice Center are rising on Gurnee Avenue. A few streets over, on the main thoroughfare of Quintard, workers already have finished the brick façade on the new Social Security building, scheduled to open this week.
There’s new construction at local military sites, too: Recently built structures at the Anniston Army Depot house updated ventilation systems and electrical wiring, while at the National Guard training center on McClellan, soldiers are sleeping in refurbished barracks and training in just-built classrooms.
“We’ve had a lot of really, really large projects here over the past year or so,” said Sherri Sumners, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “And some of the projects we have now are important, because they position us for more growth.”
The amount of recent, local construction projects has also put the area in a different kind of position: The Anniston-Oxford metro now ranks at the top of the state for its number of construction jobs, according to an August report by a national trade association that tracks statistics on the industry.
The Anniston-Oxford area’s ability to keep the number of construction jobs from dropping off between this year and last makes it the construction industry’s most stable area in Alabama, the report from the Associated General Contractors of America showed.
That’s a good thing, economic experts and Calhoun County business leaders say, because the hard-hat-wearing industry is often a bellwether for the economy.
Good news … ‘relatively speaking’
More construction jobs indicate economic growth for an area; fewer such jobs often reflect stagnation and recession, according to a 2012 study conducted by an economics professor at George Mason University.
“One of the main indicators of growth is new facilities, new businesses, new construction,” Sumners said.
Still, the Anniston-Oxford metro area’s stable construction industry as reported by the Associated General Contractors is tempered by two things: First, much of the local construction work is happening as a result of public-sector projects and is not the product of any major expansion in home-building or private business growth.
Second, a longer-term look at the industry shows there are currently only half of the 1,700 construction jobs that existed in 2006, pre-recession, in Anniston and Oxford.
“The sad fact is that the construction industry has been so hard hit,” said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Associated General Contractors group. “So no change in employment as your local area has seen is, relatively speaking, good news.”
Between July 2011 and 2012, the Anniston-Oxford area didn’t lose any of its 900 jobs, compared to places like Birmingham, which lost 15 percent of its construction jobs in that time; Montgomery, which lost 10 percent of its jobs; and even Mobile, which lost 6 percent of its 11,900 jobs in construction.
Across the state, the total number of construction jobs decreased by nearly 7,000, making Alabama one of the worst-ranked states in the country for construction.
Only Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi had more unstable construction industries than the Yellowhammer state, the Associated General Contractors’ August report showed.
In that light, national and local officials said, the ability of Anniston and Oxford to hang on to construction jobs over the past year is significant.
“It’s clearly a sign that something is happening there that isn’t in the rest of the country,” the Associated General Contractors’ spokesman Turmail said.
But the area’s ranking can also be somewhat misleading, Turmail said.
The local numbers are given a boost by public municipal projects — the justice center in Anniston or new fire station in Oxford, for example — and federally funded projects, including developments at local military installations, paid for by the Department of Defense.
These types of projects don’t indicate truly local economic growth in the way increased home-building and private sector projects would, officials said.
When home and business construction goes up, officials said, it reflects an increased willingness and ability of residents to spend money to purchase those houses or support those stores. And that indicates improved local economic health.
New home construction in Calhoun County is still lagging since the 2008 recession hit, according to the Alabama Center for Real Estate. There’s been some construction as a result of new or expanded business — the AOD Credit Union expansion is one example and the Publix shopping center in Oxford another.
“We have seen an erratic increase in the private sector market — it’s having a slow comeback,” Turmail said of the national market for construction. Meanwhile, he said, “publicly funded contracts … were keeping the construction contracts in business.”
While public sector projects don’t have the same straightforward connection to economic growth, officials said, they do spur a kind of chain reaction that is good for the local economy.
That’s because the contractors on those federally funded or public projects buy materials from local firms or suppliers and employ workers who support the local economy, through activities like shopping at area retail stores, going out to local restaurants, Anniston City Planner Toby Bennington said.
“You have to look at the services created by virtue of these projects,” Bennington said. “Every truck driver, every material handler — that creates job activity … and money spent locally.”
Public sector projects
Big-ticket public projects approved by city governments in both Anniston and Oxford have kept contractors and subcontractors busy over the past year, Sumners said.
In Anniston, work last year on the new $4.5 million aquatic center at McClellan, the $12 million Department of Human Resources building downtown and the $15 million justice center in progress on Gurnee Avenue have all played roles in retaining local construction jobs, Bennington said.
He estimated that, all told, those three ventures generated work for between 350 and 400 people.
“Typically, you do not even have two projects of that magnitude going on at the same time,” Bennington said. “But the bond time was right, the construction time was right, so it all fit together to proceed in this time period.”
Interest rates on municipal bonds have been at historic lows in recent years, meaning that cities currently can finance large projects more cheaply than they were able to in the past.
In addition, Sumners said, federally funded projects like the new Social Security building and the Veterans Memorial Parkway, a result of stimulus money, also are helping to keep around those builders, electricians, plumbers and other workers tied to the construction industry.
In Oxford, public sector development has also played a part in the area’s steady number of construction positions.
Officials have overseen work at Oxford Lake, and three different municipal centers: the Oxford Civic Center, the Bynum Community Center and a new performing arts building downtown.
Fred Denney, project manager for the city, said work at those sites plus a few others has cost just less than $24 million and employed about 150 people.
“The mayor and council felt like it was a good time to do these projects, because the workforce is available and the price is as cheap as it’s ever going to be,” Denney said.
“Contractors are short on work, so you get good prices from them when they’ve got labor out there that’s got nowhere to go.”
Construction work at the depot and National Guard training center — often the result of long-range planning required by the Department of Defense budgeting process — also contributes to the Anniston-Oxford area’s top industry ranking.
Col. Chuck Keith, the spokesman for the National Guard training center, said the Army has spent about $20 million on building improvements at the McClellan site.
Renovated barracks, classrooms, training ranges and a new McClellan Readiness Center are all parts of the infrastructure improvements, Keith said.
“It’s been a good number of years where we have been able to have the opportunity to continually upgrade our facilities,” the colonel said. “If things go as planned, we’ll continue to have the opportunity to have funds come here.”
Similarly, $24.5 million worth of new construction happened in fiscal year 2012 at the depot, including 144 projects involving the installation of new sprinkler systems, exhaust fans, walls, ventilation, heaters, pressure regulators and air reels, installation public works director Mike Mathews said.
Those projects supported about 140,000 manpower work hours, according to numbers provided by depot officials.
In the future, Sumners hopes to see construction in both the public and private sectors expand. She said that will take continued efforts on the part of local government leaders to recruit new contracts and businesses to the area, even as the completion of current projects like the Veterans Memorial Parkway can help make those recruitments happen.
Proactive capital improvement plans and comprehensive procedures for generating private sector interest are also focuses of city planners like Bennington and Denney.
Bennington said Anniston officials will in the future look at the extension of the Chief Ladiga Trail and Coldwater Mountain venue as a way to keep construction jobs in the city and attract new residents and businesses.
New and old business expansion, in turn, Sumners said, can make the area more attractive to residents, which will help jumpstart residential construction.
“Moving forward, I think, that’s the next step,” she said.
Star Assistant Metro Editor Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.