As in other areas of the country, construction in Utah in 2020 meant working with restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic, but most work was able to continue and the state’s contractors ended the year on a positive note.
Company leaders also said they are generally optimistic for the year ahead, as they gathered for the 99th annual convention of the Utah Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, held Jan. 21-22 in Salt Lake City.
Scott Okelberry, president of Sunroc Corp., became the chapter’s 2021 chairman, leading the launch of a multi-media campaign called “We Build Utah,” aimed at boosting the profile of the industry and improving worker recruitment.
The need to follow COVID-19 restrictions and respond to member needs resulted in a compressed day-and-a-half event at the Grand America Hotel.
“We always want to give the members something to look forward to and enjoy with the conventions, but we also listen to their suggestions,” said Rich Thorn, president and CEO of AGC of Utah. He noted that the shortened convention was held at the larger Grand America Hotel rather than the neighboring Little America, where the event is traditionally held, to allow for more social distancing.
Thorn said the association has tried to “lead by example” as the pandemic disrupted economies around the world. “It’s been a sketchy, but good year for our members overall. As an association, we’ve been able to lead in unprecedented times and demonstrate that construction is an essential industry. Projects have continued, and companies have been able to keep people employed,” he said.
“From what I’m hearing, 2021 will be similar, not record breaking but steady, with projects all over the state continuing to move forward,” Thorn said.
Jim Russell, director of Utah’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management, said work on state projects, including the new $850-million state prison, has continued with little disruption.
“Our contractors on all our projects have been good about following the health department guidelines,” Russell said. “We have a lot of Zoom meetings with project managers and when we do walk-throughs, we do them at night or after most of the crews have gone home.”
He added that when the state Legislature met in a special session in November to adjust budgets in response to the pandemic, lawmakers put a hold on eight state projects, including construction of a new campus for Salt Lake Community College in Herriman in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley.
“Now, the budget is looking better, and there is actually a surplus, so I’m confident those projects will be back on,” he said. “We are looking at a capital improvement budget for 2022 of about $158 million, and that is just a little over what has been funded in the past.”
Thorn said he is confident Utah’s newly elected governor, Spencer Cox, will be supportive of the building industry, having served as lieutenant governor for former Gov. Gary Herbert and having built a small telecom company in rural Utah.
“We’re looking forward to working with the new governor, and we are there to support him. We’d like to talk about bonding for infrastructure projects,” Thorn said.
“We think it is good time to do that, with low interest rates and our state’s triple-A credit rating. And we’re hopeful the new administration in Washington, D.C. can pull together and do something to fund infrastructure, which will mean good things for us here too.”
Newly installed chairman Okelberry said he is looking forward to completion this summer of the association’s new training center. “I want us to keep emphasizing workforce training in the coming year, and getting the training center up and running will be a big part of that,” he said.
“I think it is good for us to be putting our money where our mouths are when it comes to training the next generation of workers and getting people excited about working in this industry.”
The $5.2-million,16,000-sq-ft AGC training center is scheduled to open in June and will be part of a larger campus that includes the association’s office building and expanded parking.
Okelberry also praised the “We Build Utah” campaign, which includes a broad social media outreach to build awareness of construction and the career opportunities it provides.
“It will be a good thing for reaching that younger generation and showing the careers that are out there,” Okelberry said. “When I was in college, for the first year I’d never heard about construction management as a career, but once I did, I wondered where it had been and why I didn’t know about it sooner.”