Skanska USA knows casino construction

January 31, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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There's a new $157 million casino going up 25 miles south of Grand Rapids, but the company in charge of construction isn’t a newbie; it is one of the largest general contractors in the world, with a track record that includes casino construction in Michigan and other states.

The Kalamazoo office of Skanska USA is general contractor on the Gun Lake Casino, which broke ground in September and is expected to be ready for gaming early in the fall.

Skanska USA is a division of Skanska AB of Stockholm, Sweden, one of the largest construction companies in the world. Engineering News-Record listed Skanska USA as the sixth largest U.S. contractor in 2008 and 2009.

Skanska, a publicly traded company founded in 1887, entered the U.S. market in 1971. It has about 55,000 employees worldwide; about 7,000 of them are with Skanska USA, working out of 33 offices across the country. U.S. revenues for the company in 2008 were about $6.3 billion; for the entire world, it was $21.8 billion, according to Jason Kopp, the Skanska USA vice president who oversees operations managed from the Kalamazoo office.

Skanska USA, which is based in New York, "has worked on many U.S. landmarks across the country, including Reliant Stadium in Houston, the new Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (Mass.), and major renovations to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City," according to Shelby Adams, Skanska communications manager for its Midwest region.

In 1999, Skanska merged with the A.J. Etkin Co., a $200 million general contractor based in southeast Michigan but active across the state, with offices in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

In Detroit, Skanska was the general contractor on the Greektown Casino and hotel expansion completed last year. In 2007, the company completed expansion of the Kewadin Shores Casino in St. Ignace, and more recently built the Snoqualmie Casino in Snoqualmie, Wash., a 170,000-square-foot structure.

Skanska "came over here (to West Michigan) to do work for Western Michigan University and First of America, as well as the Arcadia development in downtown Kalamazoo," said Kopp, who has been with the company 10 years. During that time frame, the Kalamazoo office went from a staff of 35 to about 80 today, he said.

Besides the Gun Lake Casino, in West Michigan Skanska is working on the new $35 million terminal at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport and a $67 million project for Battle Creek Public Schools. Other recent work includes a major project for Holland Hospital and a couple of projects at Notre Dame. On the east side of the state, Skanska USA is the construction manager on the $115 million renovation and expansion of the 250-bed MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland.

Even though Skanska saw some projects cancelled in 2009 due to lack of financing, the situation was better in West Michigan than on the east side of the state, according to Kopp.

"Actually, 2009 was a very good year for us," said Kopp, noting that school and university construction has remained strong despite the recession.

In West Michigan, over 75 percent of Skanska annual revenues "are based on repeat clients," said Kopp.

However, the marked slowdown in other segments of the construction industry has definitely left it "an owner's market," said Kopp, and the prices the industry has agreed to in its contracts have "definitely favored the owner."

Projects from other markets such as retail and the pharmaceutical industry were in decline in 2009, and Skanska's Kalamazoo office expects that trend to carry through 2010, he said.

The Gun Lake Casino will be an 83,000-square-foot structure with 1,200 slot machines, 36 table games, an entertainment lounge and a restaurant seating 300. It will directly employ about 600 people. Kopp said it is a steel-framed structure with an exterior insulation finish system and stone accents. The large open floor plan will give it flexibility when slots or table games need to be moved.

The steel erection is by Ace Steel, a company from nearby Shelbyville, according to Gun Lake tribal spokesman James Nye.

According to Kopp, other West Michigan contractors involved include Grand River Concrete from Grand Rapids, Pro Services of Kalamazoo (mechanical), Kalamazoo Electric, and J. Ranck Electric Inc. of Mt. Pleasant.

Electrical needs, communications wiring and mechanical system requirements are much more demanding in casinos compared to other types of structures, said Kopp. Every one of those 1,200 slot machines requires electricity; surveillance cameras have to be installed in the ceiling above every gaming table; and casino owners insist on sophisticated ventilation, heating and AC systems to ensure that none of their customers cash in their chips early because of uncomfortable air conditions.

The architect for the Gun Lake Casino is Friedmuller Group of Las Vegas. Friedmuller "has collaborated with Station Casinos on many of the company's projects in Las Vegas and elsewhere," said Nye.

The Gun Lake Tribe, officially known as the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish, won federal recognition in 1999, and this is its first casino. The tribe announced in September, when it finally overcame legal opposition to its casino, that it had contracted with Station Casinos of Las Vegas to operate the Gun Lake Casino.

The tribe's casino development near the Bradley exit on U.S. 131 will include installation of its own water supply and a sewage treatment facility. The 147-acre site, about three miles from the tribe's original settlement in Bradley, had been an Ampro Industries manufacturing facility when the tribe bought it in 2001. One of the Ampro buildings will be renovated for use by the Gun Lake Tribe as its administrative offices near the casino.

"They have put a lot of effort into their design," Kopp said, regarding the new casino. He predicted that casino enthusiasts will find it a pleasing difference, compared to others.

Nye said the interior decor will be less of the "glitzy, high-energy atmosphere" other casinos offer, but instead more of a "comfortable atmosphere" emphasizing a high level of customer service.

The casino will be about half the size originally planned when it announced its plans almost 10 years ago. Legal delays forced construction to begin in the recession, which led to a smaller footprint. However, it is designed for expansion after the economy and credit rates have improved.

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