Reports on January construction contract activity in the Mid-Atlantic region show some hefty declines in the nonresidential sector and some solid gains in the residential and nonbuilding markets. McGraw-Hill Construction, publisher of Mid-Atlantic Construction, reported that the value of January construction contracts increased in most of the magazine's coverage area.

On a state-by-state basis, the overall numbers for January were mostly promising. For instance, compared to the same period of a year ago, the total value of January contracts improved by 22% in Virginia, 9% in Maryland, a whopping 85% in the District of Columbia, and by nearly 400% in Delaware. On the other hand, Pennsylvania experienced a 26% overall decline in the value of its January contracts.

With all four of those states and D.C. having just experienced another declining year for total construction, those numbers probably sound nice. However, those good-looking overall numbers are hiding some other, uglier ones.

For starters, there's the nonresidential market. A mostly non-starter in 2009 throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, this sector showed some split personality in January. On the minus side, Maryland's nonresidential market fell 69% in January, while Virginia's dropped 45% and Pennsylvania's plummeted 82%. In Delaware, it was a different story, however, as nonresidential contracts ballooned from just $29.4 million recorded in January '09 to the $182.8 million that moved forward this past January. In D.C., too, the nonresidential market mushroomed--at least compared to a year ago--and grew 86%.

There was good news in the other sectors, too. Residential figures were up by varying degrees in most parts of the region. Maryland led the four states with a 98% uptick, followed by Virginia's 81% improvement, Delaware's 62% increase and Pennsylvania's 17% gain. D.C.'s residential market grew, too, from the $2.3 million of a year ago to the latest figure of more than $6 million.

And the nonbuilding category, which includes infrastructure projects, was decidedly upbeat, too. In fact, in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, nonbuilding contract activity more than doubled compared to the same period of a year ago. In Pennsylvania, nonbuilding work was up by 80%. (No D.C. nonbuilding contracts were reported for January. That compares to last year's $1 million total.)

Does that mean 2010 will play out this way -- with declines in the nonresidential sector that are offset by the residential and nonbuilding markets? And that the overall direction for the market will be up? It's impossible to say, of course. But it does reflect generally the forecast for 2010 that McGraw-Hill Construction provided in late 2009. We'll keep you posted with further reports.

For now, what are your opinions about this year's construction opportunities? How does business look for the markets your company operates in? Do you see the nonresidential market showing any signs of life sometime this year? Do you think the residential and nonbuilding markets will continue to provide a steady spate of work for 2010? Is there finally some cause for optimism?

Let me hear your thoughts!