Local Skillman office leading more construction at FireKeepers

October 23, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The long list of construction projects managed by Skillman Corp. over the years goes something like this: school, school, school, city, school, city, school, school, casino.

That casino is FireKeepers in Battle Creek. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi selected Skillman to serve as the owner’s representative on construction of the casino proper, which has been open two years. Now Skillman again is serving the tribe as owner’s representative at the casino site, holding overall responsibility for completion of a 242-room resort-style hotel and other facilities, including an event center that could seat 2,000 for a concert.

Casinos are a new but welcome addition to the types of projects completed by Skillman, which is among the top 100 U.S. construction management-for-fee companies ranked by Engineering News-Record. Based in Indianapolis, Skillman has four offices in three states, including the Grand Rapids office at 4650 N. Breton Court SE, which opened 15 years ago and employs 10.

Michael Kounelis, the Skillman vice president responsible for the Michigan region, said the corporation, founded in 1972 and now employing 70, is properly described as a “project administration and construction management firm.”

Skillman manages an average of $280 million worth of projects per year.

“That’s been a pretty consistent number we’ve maintained in the last 10 years or so,” said Kounelis.

The corporation’s primary market over the years has been municipal and K-12 school projects, with FireKeepers being “a unique client,” according to Kounelis. In Michigan alone, its school construction projects have been in Allegan, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg, Lawton, New Buffalo, Spring Lake and St. Joseph. Skillman was the construction manager for the Wyoming City Hall and Wyoming Library, and the Portland Board of Light & Power.

The corporation’s expertise involving school construction can even begin with the upfront financial planning.

“In the school markets, we will work on bond campaigns for 12 to 18 months prior to a bond issue, sometimes,” said Kounelis, adding that the construction financing component can sometimes take 24 months “before a shovel is put in the ground.”

The Great Recession had a brutal impact on the U.S. construction industry and it is still feeling the pain “because the construction industry is typically one of the last ones to get out of it,” he said.

The K-12 school construction market took a hit, too, along with residential and commercial/industrial construction.

“We’ve seen a decrease in the size of those bond issues in the last few years,” said Kounelis, because the current atmosphere regarding government spending has school district officials reluctant “to go out and ask the voters to approve a substantial tax increase in these times.”

“We’re probably doing smaller size projects in that arena, compared to what we were doing five, six years ago,” he added.

Skillman subsequently has been working to diversify its portfolio due to the economic conditions.

Casinos, at least in Michigan, appear to be doing quite well financially, as indicated by a special edition of the Turtle Press last February. A publication of the Nottawaseppi Huron tribe, it contained the announcement of the tribe’s planned construction of a hotel and 2,000-seat concert hall at the FireKeepers site in Emmett Township, near Battle Creek.

“While causing challenges for many, today’s economic climate creates opportunities for others,” stated the announcement. “Construction pricing is at one of its lowest points in many years. An investment in our future now is by all accounts expected to pay a high return later. We believe our team will receive advantageous pricing to build the hotel and its amenities.”

The article also states that “our competitors are using this market opportunity to expand their ongoing gaming operations and product offerings,” and it notes that Soaring Eagle was “well underway on a water theme park.” The Gun Lake tribe had just opened its casino Feb. 11, and Four Winds was then developing a satellite casino in Hartford, which opened in late August.

Now a possible casino is being mentioned in Lansing. The Lansing State Journal reported Oct. 1 that Lansing city officials and the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians are in talks about a downtown casino, an idea strongly supported by the administration of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

The FireKeepers Casino, located just off I-94, has a 107,000-square-foot gaming floor with almost 2,700 slot machines, 78 table games, a live poker room and bingo room. About a year after it opened on Aug. 5, 2009, the casino had signed up 500,000 members in its repeat visitor awards program.

Skillman also served as owner’s representative for the FireKeepers off-site infrastructure construction, which included a half-million-gallon water tower plus new water main, storm and sanitary sewers and street improvements.

Kounelis said the casino itself is basically a 250,000-square-foot structure with a 2,000-car parking garage. He said construction cost for the casino was about $140 million, but the tribe has not announced yet how much it is investing in its new hotel and event hall, which broke ground in May.

The resort-style hotel will feature an indoor pool, exercise facility, full-service restaurant and a business center.

“In addition to that, they decided as part of this project to double the size of their bingo operations,” said Kounelis. Currently, that facility is about 5,000 square feet but will be more than 10,000 when completed. “And they’re also adding a food service component to their bingo operations as well,” he said.

A news release from the tribe in late September noted that the expansion will double the capacity for bingo players from 250 to 500 at a time.

Clark Construction of Lansing was the general construction manager on the original development and is serving in the same capacity for the hotel, event center and other expansion projects. According to the tribe, Clark has extensive experience in hotel/resort type of construction. Hoffman Brothers of Battle Creek, Michigan Paving of Canton, and Toledo Caisson Corp. are other contractors working on the project.

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi has more than 1,100 tribal members, with its service area covering parts of Allegan, Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent and Ottawa counties.

Kounelis said Skillman is not currently seeking to represent any other tribes in casino development projects. “We value the relationship that we’ve built with this tribe and continue to serve their interests,” he said.

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