Education department compiles infrastructure projects

February 7, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
Print
Text Size:
A A
The design/build industry in Michigan has been buzzing since the Michigan Department of Education began asking all school districts to whip up wish lists of infrastructure projects that might qualify for federal funding through the proposed economic stimulus package.

Grand Rapids Public Schools came up with a list of more than $45 million in potential infrastructure construction or renovation.

While noting that none of (this) is final, GRPS spokesperson John Helmholdt said GRPS "may be eligible for between $16 and $17 million dollars, just for capital improvements — for construction of shovel-ready projects."

Dave Martell, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials said in late January the lists of state-wide projects his organization has passed on to state officials totals $5.7 billion.

An executive at Tower Pinkster Titus Associates architectural firm in Grand Rapids said if Washington really does flood the nation's school districts with infrastructure funds that have to be spent as quickly as possible, it could overload the design/build industry in America.

Steve Hoekzema, a principal at Tower Pinskter, said he is convinced there will be stimulus funds for K-12 infrastructure.

"The challenging part may be … it will probably all happen about the same time. For a few days there, about every third e-mail I received had something to do with the stimulus package," Hoekzema said in late January.

"They are all needing to do projects in their districts. A lot of districts have delayed maintenance projects," said Hoekzema. "I think there's a lot of folks keeping their fingers crossed that they can upgrade their facilities with some of the stimulus money," he added.

"Shovel-ready projects" is the phrase being used in regard to the stimulus package. The House version passed in late January totals more than $800 billion; many proponents urge immediate use of stimulus funds to prop up the U.S. economy before it gets much worse.

"The state has requested us to develop an inventory of (school infrastructure) projects that could meet some of the definitions of what the feds are talking about, including things like how fast can you get your construction project in place," said Martell.

"Shovel-ready" implies new construction from the ground up, but Martell said infrastructure projects could also include renovations and repairs of existing facilities.

"Basically, they want stuff that could be started within 180 days of the passing of legislation," said Martell — although the school districts were also asked to identify projects that could start within 90 and 120 days.

Proponents of the stimulus package are "also interested in greening things — anything that helps save energy," said Martell. "They're interested in helping fund jobs in economically distressed areas, so there is a focus on the unemployment rate" of the community in question.

The first request for infrastructure wish lists came from the state Department of Education before Christmas; then there was a second request in mid-January that included a "template" for each school district to fill out.

"Each school district is determining as best they can how fast each of the projects would be able to be done," said Martell.

Martin Ackley, communications director for the Michigan Department of Education, said that until a stimulus bill is actually signed by Obama, the department won't know what it will mean for schools in Michigan. The state government was proactively preparing to make a case for Michigan in Washington even as details of the stimulus package are hammered out.

Hoekzema said more than half the work Tower Pinkster does is related to educational facilities. The architectural firm, which has offices in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and employs about 75, "may be working for 12 to 15 school districts at any given time."

Hoekzema said school design/construction has been a very solid market.

“The reason is, even during a downturn, even if a district may be losing a few students, they still have facilities needs. A lot of school districts have facilities that were designed and built in the ’50s and ’60s, and those buildings are coming toward the end of their useful life, especially mechanical and electrical systems, roofs and so forth."

One of the larger architectural firms in Grand Rapids is URS, which employs 260 here. Senior design architect Steve Turnipseed, who has been with URS for 20 years, said a majority of his work involves educational facilities, and he acknowledged there is "a lot of buzz."

"There's a lot of speculation about what's going to come," said Turnipseed. "We, as architects, were contacted by our professional organization to submit lists of projects that are ready to go that may have been delayed by the economy."

School districts, he said, are a major focus of the proposed use of stimulus funds.

"Districts have needs they are holding back on," he said, because many public school districts are seeing declining numbers of students, while at the same time unemployment continues to rise in those communities.

"They are afraid to go to the voters to pass a bond issue and yet those needs are still there. The infrastructure in place needs to be continually maintained and improved," he said.

"Everybody wants a piece of (the stimulus package) — not just architecture and construction," said Turnipseed, noting that other types of government facilities such as military bases are also probably in line for funds.

"I think the stimulus package is a bright spot, depending on what political persuasion you are. There may be some real money there, and I guess West Michigan ought to get a piece of it, just like everybody else," he said.

Hoekzema said Tower Pinkster has designed facilities for as many as 40 school districts.

"If all our former clients call us up and say, ‘Hey, I've got money to spend’ — that could be a challenge. And that includes the construction companies too."

The impact of the stimulus package, he said, is not just in Michigan.

“We're talking nationally. So there's going to be thousands of school districts, I imagine, that are going to have projects immediately. When you start to look at the industry in terms of getting (school) lockers or windows or cabinets — it could put a national strain on all of those (production) systems."

Brad Hemmes does not think there will be a problem. He is a principal at GMB Architects-Engineers in Holland, where 70 percent of their business is educational clients.

"I am not concerned with the ability of the design and construction industry in Michigan being able to handle the volume of projects that comes from any stimulus package," said Hemmes. "There are tremendous resources available on both the design and construction side. If/when the projects and funding are approved, the design professionals and the construction industry in Michigan will make the projects a reality, within the state and federal requirements of the package."

Hemmes said there are far more facility needs in school districts in Michigan than the stimulus package will be able to address. He said he had heard in the last week of January that there were more than $8 billion in stimulus package requests from Michigan school districts.

“And these are real needs. I hope that the stimulus package will help school districts address infrastructure needs and allow districts to provide forms of green and alternate energy that will allow school districts to operate more efficiently for years to come."

Lisa Freiburger, chief operating/finance officer at Grand Rapids Public Schools, noted that GRPS recently completed 11 projects "on time, on budget, and most of the projects green-built."

She said the school board has been planning another phase of building improvements, including work on the four high schools, which is projected to cost $250 million. High on the list of projects are Stocking Elementary and Congress/Hillcrest.

Freiburger said GRPS has been advised to seek voter approval of a bond in November, but would also be working to raise funds through other means to pay for the projects.

"Our recent track record … coupled with our future plans for high school renovations, we believe makes GRPS particularly well positioned to meet the timelines and goals of the federal stimulus package," said Freiburger

Recent Articles by Pete Daly

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus