Construction: Virginia’s Quiet, Strong Man

Scene from Micron’s $3 billion construction project in Manassas. Photo credit: Inside NoVa

By Peter Galuszka

For all the complaints about the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia – the shut-down restaurants and (temporarily) closed beaches – one industry has been working steadily and quietly all along – the state’s construction sector.

Builders haven’t missed much of a beat since the “state at home” orders started going out a couple of months ago.

In Pentagon City, works still progresses on the two, 22-story towers for Amazon’s new eastern headquarters. In suburban Chesterfield County near Richmond, workers toil adding new drain pipes and four-laning once- rural roads. Four-story apartments overlooking Swift Creek Reservoir are taking shape for the over-55 crowd.

At a loud and garish protest next to the State Capitol against Gov. Ralph Norham’s work-stoppage plans last month, Mark Carter, a contractor from Hanover County, made his views known. “We‘re still working,” he told me. “I’m not for Trump and I’m not a Democrat. People need to work.”

In Virginia, some are. After all, New York state and Boston stopped construction work due to the pandemic.

As The Washington Post reports: “While shuttering many businesses to try to slow the virus’s spread, officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia have designated construction as “essential,” along with hospitals, grocery stores, banks and a handful of other businesses. All three jurisdictions have also allowed private construction, including home building and commercial developments, to continue.”

That bit of wiggle room, along with an 8.5 month-long backlog of orders at the start of the pandemic locally (according to the Richmond Times Dispatch), have kept thousands of Virginia builders on the job. Current figures aren’t available yet, but as of last year’s fourth quarter, there were more than 248,000 people involved in construction, according to Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics.

Such activity hasn’t broken much of a stride, but it still goes largely unnoticed against the devastation ravaging other economic sectors such as hospitality and tourism.

There are other shining examples as well, such as logistics which are busy shipping on-line orders since stores will open only in a few days. At the same time, the food processing industry shouldered primarily by minority workers, have taken huge hits in the Shenandoah Valley and the Eastern Shore.

Taken together, this is what makes the pandemic so bizarre and hard to understand. In Northern Virginia, residents actually have petitioned Clark Construction of Bethesda, Md. to quiet down the construction noise at the Amazon site in Pentagon City, according to WTOP radio.

Construction workers are supposed to use hand cleaner and follow ordinary social distancing rules, but not always, apparently. The LiUNAI, a trade union with 3,000 members in the greater DC, area has received complaints that safety rules aren’t being followed, according to the DCist.

How long will the busy times last? Who knows? Obviously the workers will be charging through their back orders. Mark Hourigan, owner of a Richmond construction, recently had 35 work sites from Hampton Roads to Charlottesville, according to the Times-Dispatch. That should be enough for a while.

One building sector that is at work today and might create even more jobs is renewable energy. According to Charlottesville Tomorrow, the newly-passed Virginia Clean Economy Act, which calls for much more renewable power, could soon be creating 13,000 new jobs a year.

“While it is too early to say exactly how COVID-19 will impact our industry, it’s safe to say we are in a much stronger position than we would be without the VCEA,” added Cat Strumlauf, a spokesperson for Apex Energy. Strumlauf also sits on Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Board of Directors. “This landmark legislation provides much-needed certainty for the industry in what is increasingly an uncertain time,” she says.

Why haven’t we heard much about this? We could blame the Mainstream News Media, but (HOT FLASH!), it’s already been in the MSM.

It could be that wait staff and bar owners have – correctly – shouted out their dire plight. Perhaps critics of Donald Trump, and I enthusiastically include myself, want to draw attention to his utter incompetence.

It could also be that the Right Wing Echo chamber wants to dump on Gov. Northam for his successful progressive legislative reforms, such as the VCAE, ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and freeing up voting procedures. They have been trying to paint him as some kind of crypto-fascist beach-closer who is forcing us to wear masks.

Take your pick. Meanwhile, if you want a construction industry thrill, mark your calendars for May 30. On that day, Dominion Energy is going to blow up and demolish its old downtown headquarters building on Cary Street in downtown Richmond.

The utility asks that you don’t get too close.