A cheer went up from the crowd at the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500 competition as Jerry Goodman won both first place and top craftsman honors, laying 644 bricks in 60 minutes. The competition was a bright spot at World of Concrete 2014, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center from Jan. 21-24. Otherwise, the mood at the annual trade show was subdued as teeming crowds filed past demolition hammers, concrete pumps and the latest safety gear.

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Overall attendance was at roughly 48,000, down approximately 7,000 from last year. Total exhibitor space at World of Concrete 2014 also was reduced this year. The trade show was somewhat overshadowed by the impending triennial CONEXPO/CON-AGG trade show, to be held at the same location on March 4-8. For some equipment makers, the marketing pressure of two trade shows has them putting off their big announcements for CONEXPO.

While the crowds were not quite as large as last year, there was a ray of sunshine in the Portland Cement Association's annual economic forecast. "We're expecting cement to grow 8% this year," said Edward Sullivan, chief economist for the PCA. "That's largely driven by gains in residential but also being supported by gains in non-residential and, to a lesser extent, even in public."

Pent-up demand is going to drive year-over-year increases in construction for the foreseeable future, according to Sullivan. "Any time you get positive [trends] in residential, non-residential and public, you typically get extremely strong cement construction growth," he said, adding that the PCA expects to see, by the end of 2014, U.S. cement manufacturers operating at utilization rates of over 90% utilization.

Sullivan expects some of the regions hardest hit by the housing crisis, including the Southeast and the Southwest, to be the new hot spots as pent-up demand is met. In particular, the PCA expects Florida, Georgia and Arizona to have the highest rates of growth in the coming years.

When it comes to the concrete industry as a whole, PCA President and CEO Greg Scott offered one anecdote, saying, "I have heard from our members as business is returning: They are taking trucks out of mothballs that they had sitting there for three or four years and are having trouble finding qualified drivers to drive those trucks. "

While the future may be looking brighter, state and local governments have gotten used to doing more with less in recent years. Today, many municipalities are still in "patch-and-repair" mode. “We’re seeing an uptick in concrete road overlays,” said American Concrete Paving Association (ACPA) spokesman Bill Davenport. “Cash-strapped municipalities have pulled back on capital infrastructure spending, resulting in more preservation work.”