Builder: 'I think we'll see an uptick'
Construction industry is looking to a slow but steady climb.
A Serfass Construction employee works on the company's new headquarters recently. The company is counting on an uptick in the construction industry. (ROB KANDEL, THE MORNING CALL / March 12, 2011)
In December alone, Serfass posted video of its $1.5 million renovation project at Blue Mountain ski resort, announced the completion of both a $4 million medical office building in Nazareth and an office expansion for the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. The following month, the company touted some of its more recent projects: about $750,000 in renovations on a Hazleton Area School District auditorium and renovations to Simplex Grinell/ADT's office in Upper Macungie Township.
That's all happening at a time when Serfass, based for years on Albright Ave. in South Whitehall, is building a new $1 million headquarters on Mauch Chunk Road in North Whitehall that will more than quadruple the size of the company's operations base.
Kevin Serfass, a company vice president, acknowledged the relocation, likely to be completed this spring, may seem a bit unusual in light of the overall state of development in the Valley. Serfass said his firm is positioning itself for the future, particularly at a time when the price tag of construction is generally down.
With its LED lights, atrium lobby, radiant heat and "modern design," Serfass sees the new 8,500 square-foot building as a showpiece for future clients.
"We want to be ready for when the economy turns," Serfass, 26, said. "As soon as you see people with money they're wanting to spend, we want to be the guy they go to. I think we'll see an uptick in private work."
Make no mistake: Serfass, as did other builders, took a hit during the economic downturn. The company, at its height, had about 35 employees and is now down to about 25.
A recent report compiled by the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board and Pennsylvania Career Link Lehigh Valley indicated that employers in the construction industry plan to reduce staffing in 2011.
Following a decade of unprecedented growth that saw thousands of newly built homes, the boom came to a crashing halt.
Lehigh County has seen a 65 percent decrease in building permits, to 613 in 2009 from 1,731 in 2005. In Northampton County, permits are off by a whopping 84 percent, with only 353 issued in 2009 compared with 1,986 in 2005.
To put things in perspective, Lower Macungie, once one of the faster-growing areas in the region, has seen few residential permit requests. But there has been a bit of an increase in requests for permits related to commercial construction.
In most cases, property owners are beginning to fill previously vacant space, according to Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie's planning director. "Other than that, a lot of people are coming in to talk, but not that many are making applications."
For those whose livelihood depends on development, there may be a few good signs that commercial construction may be picking up a bit.
Nationally, employment of construction laborers is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Employment of construction equipment operators is predicted to increase 12 percent during that period.
In Lower Macungie, a New York developer has pitched a shopping center on Krocks Road between Hamilton Boulevard and the Route 222 Bypass. Developer Tim Harrison is courting retailers such as Target, BJ's Wholesale Club and ShopRite and says the project, still in the early stages, could create as many as 1,000 jobs.
Jaindl Land Co. is planning to develop 600-plus acres in the western portion of Lower Macungie, a plan that could include about 4 million square feet of warehouses and up to 700 homes.
The Bethlehem Planning Commission recently approved construction of a data storage warehouse on a section of the former Bethlehem Steel plant.
Jeff Zeh, the president and chief executive officer of the Associated Builders and Contractors' Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter, said busy contractors are generally the exception, not the rule, these days.
"It does appear that  will be slightly better and will continue on that track, slowly upward," Zeh said. "There are a few more contractors that seem to be busy."