After a long, harsh downturn, concrete contractors and suppliers are looking up as they face a "huge pent-up demand," said Portland Cement Association chief economist Ed Sullivan, who spoke Feb. 5 at the World of Concrete in Las Vegas.

"The pendulum had swung too far, but it's going to swing back," Sullivan said. "Household debt-to-income ratio is at its lowest rate since the early 1980s."

The weeklong international conference and trade show each year serves as a bellwether for the upcoming construction season. This year's concrete show saw just under 55,000 visitors, a 5.3% increase since 2012, according to show manager Hanley Wood. Net exhibit space also grew to 605,000 sq ft, an 8% annual increase.

In October, the World of Concrete franchise will expand with a new show in Hyderabad, India. The four-day WOC India will be produced in partnership with the Indian Concrete Institute. WOC has previously held shows in Mexico.

Housing Starts Up

A boost in residential construction has economists optimistic about concrete use in the months and years ahead. An 8.1% yearly growth in U.S. cement consumption is expected in 2013, driven by 954,000 new housing starts—or nearly 30% more than in 2012, PCA noted.

Although the first half of 2013 is expected to see a tepid economic growth, things should gain steam in the second half of the year. PCA projects an 8.3% cement consumption increase for 2014 followed by an up to 9.2% annual gain between 2015 and 2017.

"The average contractor has reset himself to a new norm, and now he's ready to move forward," said Don Ahern, president of Ahern Rentals, whose manufacturing unit exhibited its Xtreme brand of telescopic handlers and modular jobsite cubes. "The credit crunch is starting to un-crunch."

Yet the downturn's lingering effects still hovered over the Las Vegas Convention Center. Familiar vendors were missing, while small booths and empty spaces still pockmarked the show floor.

"It was a tough, long recession," said Ahern. "But it's clearly over now, and good times are ahead of us."