Health Care, Education Propel Construction

The construction and real estate markets in Arkansas are holding their own, giving rise to guarded but upbeat expectations

(Click here for a list of the state's largest private companies in the construction and real estate sectors.)

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Sam Alley, chairman and CEO of Little Rock's VCC general contracting firm. "We're watching our numbers closely, and the bidding margins are tighter than ever."

Construction in Arkansas is faring better than in many parts of the nation, and Alley said several sectors in the state were enjoying good activity.

"We're seeing a lot of institutional work with schools at universities and colleges," he said. "We're also seeing the medical side picking up some, hospitals and medical office buildings."

Much of the activity is focused on expansions, upgrades and renovations without much new construction thrown into the mix.

A catalyst in this activity is the real estate meltdown, which wrought a wave of foreclosures and shifting ownerships. Alley noted that new owners were investing money to improve projects purchased at discounts from lenders or at the courthouse steps.

"We're seeing some improvements in some markets," said Bill Hannah, CEO of Conway's Nabholz Construction Corp.

"Health care and K-12 is good. That's where most of our work is. But we're seeing a little improvement in the manufacturing area. We have two to three pretty good manufacturing jobs."

The company's manufacturing projects include work on an Iowa turkey hatchery plant and at the Hino Motors Manufacturing USA plant in Marion.

Hannah echoes the cautious assessment of the construction market, noting sectors that are still lagging. The area that is really slow is retail," he said.

"We're also not seeing any activity in the hospitality area, hotels. It's really slow."

Suzette Sparks, manager of Lindsey & Associates in Rogers, said that favorable interest rates were helping the northwest Arkansas real estate market work through overbuilding.

"Apartments are jam-packed full," she said. "Ninety-eight percent occupancies are common with our properties. Not much is happening with development of raw land, and Benton County is dealing with so many residential foreclosures."