ENR Midwest’s Top Starts in 2020 fell to levels not seen since 2015, as the record-setting pace of starts over the last three years faltered with owners delaying or canceling projects nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of $14.8 billion in new construction started in the 11-state region in 2020, a more than two-thirds drop from the record $43.5 billion in 2019. Most ubiquitously absent was the building type that powered 2019, 2018 and 2017 to records: data centers.

The internet infrastructure big boxes accounted for $7.7 billion alone in 2019 starts in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. That number is more than half the total starts on this year’s list.

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ENR Midwest 2020 Top Starts

Battered by the pandemic, only five office projects broke ground last year, and the central business district high-rise office tower projects that dominated previous years were limited to the BMO Tower and Wolf Point South/Salesforce projects in Chicago.

Along with data centers, investments in both energy generation and transmission fueled the last three years, but the latter investments didn’t disappear. The top two starts on this year’s list were natural gas plants and the rest of the top 10 featured an oil pipeline (Buckeye Xpress by TC Energy), three wind farm projects and Husky Energy/Cenovus’ Superior, Wis., oil refinery rebuild.

A strong market for water and wastewater projects emerged as cities, federal agencies and one private owner took the plunge in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio and Kansas by making a total of $1.2 billion in water investments. Last year’s ENR Midwest Owner of the Year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, continued to invest in flood mitigation and repair projects in Missouri. The cities of New Berlin, Wausau and Waukesha made water pipeline and wastewater treatment plant and pipeline improvements. Lost Island Water Park in Waterloo, Iowa, invested $100 million to expand its water park into a full-scale theme park.

Transportation departments and tollway and airport authorities started $1.245 billion in projects during 2020. The runway extensions and widenings in Kentucky and Illinois appear to be related to a new group of project starts ENR began tracking this year: fulfillment, logistics and distribution centers. Amazon fulfillment centers have been a Top Starts staple for the last five years, but now companies such as Ashley Furniture and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson are investing in the Midwest with $683 million in such starts. Johnson & Johnson’s distribution center in Mooresville, Ind., is being delivered by design-build contractor Clayco and its in-house architect the Lamar Johnson Collaborative. Construction begin in May on the facility, which could be key in developing and distributing future vaccines and medicine.

Despite the drop in starts to 32.5% of their 2019 total, the value of projects that moved forward in the health care, residential/hospitality and school and government sectors are about on par with previous years. A return of market certainty may be necessary before owners are willing to make the robust recommitment to investments in offices and data centers in 2021 that would lift the region’s starts back to pre-pandemic levels.