Increases Expected for Summer Construction

By Beacon Staff

Summer is construction season in the Flathead, when builders take advantage of the warm weather and generally clear skies to lay foundations for the houses and businesses that will serve the valley’s residents.

Construction activity has been shy in the last few years; the recession in 2008 took its toll on many of the housing and building industries in the Flathead. But as the economy continues to regain its footing, people are starting to build again.

Builders across the valley are reporting plenty of activity, with full calendars stretching into the summer months. And while last summer was positive for the industry, this summer looks poised to surpass it.

“Our number of new projects started is definitely up,” Blake Robinson, construction loan inspector for Glacier Bank, said. “Last year was great and this year is improving.”

The Flathead Building Association reported that its members, which include around 65 builders and about 100 businesses associated with the building industry, are expecting a busy season.

At Ron Terry Construction, they are getting two to three calls from new prospective clients each day, according to company vice president Merna Terry, and most of those calls are panning out into projects.

“We are just over-the-top busy. I think it’s all the pent up demand coming out. I think all these people were waiting and thinking about
building,” Terry said. “All of a sudden it cut loose. It’s crazy.”

Terry said the company expects to double its number of housing starts per week, with more than one start per week. As of the beginning of May, that schedule was set to continue through July, she said.

“It’s overwhelming, but you can’t complain,” she said.

Last year seemed to be the summer when the economy turned the corner, Terry said, with more activity and more people willing to invest in new homes again.

With more work coming in, the company is able to hire more construction crew personnel, she said. This year they’ve already added three positions to the company payroll, and they may need to add another framing crew to the two they already run, which could mean up to six more jobs.

Another interesting aspect about the new workload is that with more demand means the company will have to raise its prices, Terry said. No one has tried to negotiate down the price, she added.

The full schedule of building activity brings up whiffs of the 2005, 2006 construction years, when the valley was going gangbusters with new housing and construction starts, she said.

But the lessons learned in the recession won’t be easily forgotten, Terry said, and she hopes this construction increase is merely a rebound from hitting the bottom of the barrel.

At Glacier Bank, Robinson said the builders he’s spoken with are also wary of too much, too soon, and believes that most in the valley are searching for a gradual increase.

“We’re looking for sustainable growth,” Robinson said.

Building permits in Kalispell and Whitefish are also on the upswing. In the last 10 years, Whitefish hit its peak for residential permits in 2006, with 150. By 2009, that number was down to 14.

Last year, the city issued 77 residential building permits, and this year looks to be busy as well, according to city planning director Dave Taylor.

Most of the building activity the city has seen has been residential, he said, with single-family homes making up the bulk of the permits.

There has been commercial development as well, he said, including a proposed development of the empty lot across the street from city hall.

According to the building permit application for the project, it is expected to be a commercial building with retail and office space, as well as lodging. The building is projected to be 7,138 square feet, and cost about $1.7 million.

In Kalispell, so far this year the city has issued 29 building permits for single-family homes and four townhouses. A recent increase in the sewer fees brought in a flurry of permits seeking to get in before the March 31 deadline for the price increase, and now there are 22 permits for single-family homes and nine townhouses waiting for review.

In 2008, Kalispell issued 203 residential building permits, and was down to 106 by 2011. Activity picked up last year, with 164 permits.

For Terry and other builders in the valley, the jump in business is a welcome change from the doldrums of the recession. But she’s also keeping a wary eye on the increases.

“We’re trying not to expect it to stay this way,” Terry said. “At this point, it’s overwhelmingly busy and I’m not going to complain about it.”

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