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Economy might be slow, but architects and engineers stay busy

Work for state architects and engineers entered a slow phase even before Sept. 11, but most firms expect their business to be cyclical and take the steps to cope with the expected peaks and valleys.

“It has slowed a little bit, but there is still a lot of work around here,” said Carl Germany with C. Germany Architects in Ocean Springs. “A lot of people are holding off to see what is going to happen with the stock market. I think everyone is sort of paused right now. But if you have cultivated sources, there is still work. The Coast cities are still doing some projects. It is nice that the government is doing some work around here. It sure helps us out.”

The City of Biloxi has a record level of construction underway. After recently completing several new schools, the city is now forging ahead on long-needed highway improvements and additional building projects.

“We have between $20 and $25 million worth of work underway,” said Vincent Creel, spokesman for the City of Biloxi. “There is more work being done on the design and engineering side, and I’m sure that is helping the economy.”

Creel said that government is never ahead of the loop. Usually the commercial development comes first, and then the government will come in with the roads and other infrastructure.

“Why doesn’t the government do it on the front end?” Creel asks. “Because it is the tax revenues generated by the development that pays for the improvements. We saw that with gaming.”

In addition to major road improvements, Biloxi is building a $10 million sports complex on Popps Ferry Road and has other building projects underway. In Gulfport, the construction of a new federal courthouse has created spin-off projects such as offices and retail developments.

Military housing projects are underway in Gulfport, Biloxi and near Gautier. And in Pascagoula and Moss Point, major new private apartment construction projects are in the works. A 256-unit apartment complex is planned for Moss Point, and Pascagoula is slated to get a 52-unit project.

Bob Diamond, principal, Batson & Brown Consulting Engineers, Lucedale, agrees that government projects underway are helping offset a slowdown in private development.

“Typically it takes three to five years for planning for highways, so we’re seeing a lot of the projects that are in the pike that are coming through. I know of several projects that are out there. But I expect minimal private development for two to five years.”

Diamond said his firm always works hard to finish projects on or under budget. But with the slowing economy, there may be more pressure to stretch the dollar a bit farther.

In the Jackson area, the construction of the new Nissan plant came at a good time.

“We did the mechanical and electrical design on Nissan, so that hit us at a good time,” said Will Irby, senior associate, HESM&A Consulting Engineers. “In May of 2001 we were looking at a slowdown, and then got the Nissan contract. Had it not been for that, we might have been sitting around looking at each other for a while. But Nissan has kept us busy through June of this year. The design phase of that work has tapered off, but we’re doing spin off work, the Nissan Training Facility, the Center for Advanced Vehicular Studies at Mississippi State and projects for several ancillary Nissan suppliers.”

HESM&A does a lot of out-of-state work, and nationally everyone has been affected by Sept. 11.

“The main thing that hit us is we do Saks Fifth Avenue work nationwide, and it has really slowed down in the past year,” Irby said. “I believe it had slowed down a little before 9-11. We do a lot of hospital work, which is ongoing usually regardless of the economy. We have done a lot of jails recently, and those are still rolling along. We’re lucky in that we are fairly diversified. We have not put all our eggs in one basket.”

By doing a combination of different types of projects, the firm stays diversified and is able to weather a slowdown in one sector. The company also has an office in Atlanta, and work in that area has slowed down more than in Mississippi.

“The Atlanta office is actually a lot slower than we are,” Irby said. “They aren’t quite as diversified. They are heavy into retail and office space, and I think that has been hit hard across the board.”

Most architecture firms were seeing a slowdown early in 2001, according to Elizabeth Stanga, marketing director for Johnson Bailey Henderson McNeel Architects PA, which has offices in Jackson, Hattiesburg,

Columbus, Tupelo and Southaven.

“We experienced a slowdown prior to Sept. 11, and we seem to be stable at this time,” Stanga said. “We seem to be experiencing a comeback.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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