Has construction finally hit rock bottom? New projects are expected to swing up slightly this year, but the economic fog will not fully lift for another year or two, remarked attendees at this year’s World of Concrete.

Photo: Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
Fast-handed masons competed for more than $100,000 in cash and prizes in front of 4,000 spectators on Feb. 3 at the World of Concrete.
Photo: Tony Illia for ENR
Booth spaces shrunk this year, allowing smaller exhibitors to become more visible.

About 55,000 people—a 16% yearly decline and the event’s lowest turnout since its 2007 peak of about 92,000—attended the annual exhibition held on Feb. 2-5. However, the thin crowd’s mood was more upbeat this year, visitors said, and exhibitors were selling more, too—a sign that the economic slump may be near the end.

“I think, overall, the people are pleasantly surprised,” said Tom Cindric, show director with Hanley Wood Exhibitions. “We’re hoping that the industry continues to move forward.”

As usual, contractors attending the show scoured the aisles for tools and tricks to give them a competitive advantage. “It’s getting better, but we’re not out of it yet,” said Trevor Barrett, owner of trucking and excavation firm Barrett Enterprises in Nantucket, Mass. “Everyone’s just trying to get the edge.” Power-tool firms took a safety tack, showing off dust guards and shop vacs aimed at reducing the risk of silicosis, a growing health concern.

Garrett Hood
“Winning a truck, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
— Garrett Hood
1st Place

Some equipment exhibitors—many of whom trimmed down their booth spaces to save costs—promoted existing products over new ones. Terex salespeople showcased a Bidwell paver and talked about how the 50-year-old design costs 85% less than $1-million slipform machines. The pitch helped the paving unit grow sales 110% last year, while other suppliers posted double-digit losses. Also on display was a remanufactured Terex Advance mixing truck, or “glider,” which costs almost half that of a new, $200,000 rig; it was on its way to buyer Pocono Transcrete Inc. of Pittston, Pa.

Disappointed so far with outlays from last year’s federal stimulus package, infrastructure suppliers said they were heavily targeting Latin America and particularly Brazil, which is ramping up to host soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. “Rio’s a mess,” said Jeff Thress, regional sales manager for Terex-Bidwell. “You are talking about almost third-world modernization down there.”

Meanwhile, contractors in the States suffering from low sales, low utilization and high inventory have resorted to cannibalizing their fleets to save money. Concrete pumps “look like Frankensteins,” said Michael Wasserfuhr, CFO of Sturtevant, Wis.-based Putzmeister America Inc., who added that the parts business is starting to pick up again, a sign that the U.S. economy may be turning around.

Because of the scaled-down booths, smaller firms usually in the weeds at past shows now had a chance to shine. “That’s allowed a lot of exhibitors to become a little more visible and get closer to the front of the action,” said Cindric.

In a parking lot outside the convention center, masons wielded blazing trowels at the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500, an annual skills challenge, held on Feb. 3. Garrett Hood, a 25-year-old mason from Monroe, N.C., laid 911 bricks in an hour, the highest number ever at the event.

“I’m tired, but it feels great,” said Hood. He took home $5,000 in cash and a new Ford pickup, adding, “Winning a truck, it doesn’t get any better than that.” Watch the lightning-quick masons in action at construction.com/video.