Architects Give Stimulus Credit For Saving Jobs

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 12:00 am  

After 24 months in a slowdown, David Conyers doesn't call this economic trough a recession. He says, "this so-called recession." To him it feels like something worse.

The vice president at Guest Reddick Architects in Fort Smith said the firm weathered 12 months of bad business before it cut staff. They were long-timers, too - five employees who had been there between seven and 39 years.

"The slowdown has meant lost jobs," Conyers said. "Just about every firm that I know of in this state has had to let people go.

"It hurts. You're not losing employees; you're losing family."

One partial salve for architecture firms during the recession has been the building projects spurred by the passage of the $787 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act a year ago. Criticized at the time for its desultory bloat - the Wall Street Journal called it "a political wonder that manages to spend money on just about every pent-up Democratic proposal of the last 40 years" - the stimulus has put a slab of cash toward building projects in the education, transportation, housing and rural development sectors. Architects say those projects have saved jobs and allowed them to make needed energy-efficiency improvements while private building jobs have waned.

"The economy has slowed down, and typically our industry is the first to see that slowdown," Conyers said. "Most of the clients that we deal with are public sector clients, so they are investing their money in the future. They see [a downturn] very quickly, and it trickles to us very quickly."

Conyers' firm has long worked with the Fort Smith Housing Authority, and that agency was quick to submit a proposal for stimulus grant money. Ken Pyle, the Housing Authority's executive director, said the agency had for years needed to add handicapped-accessible units to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Working closely with Conyers, Pyle was able to make their plans for four duplexes designed for handicapped and elderly residents a shovel-ready project.

The agency received $807,459 in stimulus money through a Department of Housing & Urban Development capital fund recovery grant, allowing for the construction of the eight new units at a cost of about $560,000, with money left over for sidewalks and parking lot repairs. They're expected to have a grand opening on March 25, eight days after the deadline to allocate stimulus funds. "We looked at the cost comparisons, and building new costs a little more, but we end up with eight more units," Pyle said. "It's really a good story. We wanted to be responsible with it and do the right thing for our residents, and consulting with our board of commissioners, it was clear the timing was good for us."

The timing was also good for Guest Reddick, which is down to seven employees. It made a 5.5 percent commission, about 40 percent of which stays with the firm after other engineering needs are covered, Conyers said.

It's a story that has played out for firms across the state and the country. Arkansas' share of the stimulus package is up to about $3.1 billion, according to Chris Massengill, the state recovery implementation director and Gov. Mike Beebe's director of intergovernmental affairs. (You can track projects online at Per capita stimulus spending in Arkansas ($628) has outpaced the national average ($621), according to a December analysis by the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica.

Not all of that will go to construction or building rehab projects. But the potential money available as block grants or community development funds for the state's housing authorities - money likely to go for building projects - is about $57 million, according to HUD spokeswoman Patricia Campbell. And that's to say nothing of the $4.935 million grant for wastewater facilities in Phillips County or the $90,000 loan and $49,000 grant to put an elevator in the Jackson County courthouse.

Outside of projects such as these, a glut of commercial and residential space, combined with overall economic sluggishness, has beaten down demand for architects' services. "You'd have to say the market's very soft," said John Sloan, executive vice president of Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Architects in Little Rock. "There certainly is not very much development work, and very few corporations are looking for expanding, therefore needing additional space for product storage or personnel."



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