ADVERTISEMENT

It’s becoming a good time to be a construction worker in Western New York again.

From carpenters to sheet-metal workers, from laborers to bricklayers, from truck drivers to crane operators, construction crews are working at jobs throughout the Buffalo Niagara region – especially in downtown Buffalo.

“If you’re a good carpenter and you come to Buffalo, you’ll have no problem getting a job,” said 31-year-old Michael James, of Buffalo, a carpentry foreman and mechanic for Gypsum Systems for the last 13 years. “It’s hard to keep bodies in the job sites, because there are so many projects.”

Right now, workers are building the interior of One Canalside, soon to be home to Phillips Lytle LLP and a Courtyard by Marriott hotel.

They finished construction of the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino near the Cobblestone District.

They’re building the base for the Buffalo Sabres’ 20-story HarborCenter project across the street from First Niagara Center.

They’re starting work on the exterior walls of Catholic Health System’s new six-story headquarters at the foot of the Kensington Expressway, now that the steel frame of the building is up.

They’re constructing Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s Conventus building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. And they will be breaking ground or starting work on the planned University at Buffalo Medical School building, Roswell Park Cancer Institute Clinical Sciences Center and John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital nearby.

“What is on the books is unprecedented for the next couple of years, so it’s a very good time in the construction industry in Western New York,” said Sam Capitano, business manager for Laborers Local 210. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen tower cranes in the area, so we’re very optimistic here.”

Despite the optimism on the job sites, overall employment has not returned to pre-recession heights. According to data from the state Department of Labor, construction employment in the Buffalo metropolitan area fell by 2.8 percent, to 20,900, in July, from 21,500 a year earlier.

Surprisingly, that is the lowest tally for July in at least six years – 11 percent below the 2008 level of 23,500, when construction employment peaked. And it has been running below its prior-year level for the last 13 months, said state labor economist Tammy L. Marino, despite the regional economy’s having recovered the jobs lost to the Great Recession.

Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building & Construction Trades Council, questioned the state numbers, citing other statistics showing that Western New York was third in the nation for adding the most construction jobs. “The labor halls have full employment,” he said. “Things are going pretty well.”

The decade-long, $1 billion project to rebuild numerous Buffalo public schools is nearing completion, which accounts for some of the job decline.

“The Buffalo schools project has wound down. We’re at the very end of it,” Capitano said. “Some of our employers have picked up schools outside of the city, but not to the extent with the Buffalo schools project.”

But other projects are in the offing, such as Uniland Development Co.’s 250 Delaware, Ellicott Development’s Coffee Rich warehouse conversion, Jake Schneider’s Apartments at The Hub, Rocco Termini’s Houk and Foundry Lofts in North Buffalo, or Paul Iskalo’s Hyatt Place Hotel in Amherst – to name just a few.

“This is by far the busiest I’ve ever seen our area,” said Steven A. Perrigo, project manager in Buffalo for Turner Construction Co., who moved to Buffalo in 1998. “When you talk to most of the folks who are in the trade, a lot of people are working. There are very few who are on the bench, and there’s a lot of excitement in the air.”

“This year has been one of the better years in the construction market,” said George L. Churakos, principal and co-owner of Mark Cerrone Inc., a major building and construction contractor based in Niagara Falls. “It’s our hope that it gets better. It’s encouraging to see some investments back and some work projects starting to get off and a lot of workers working right now.”

The hiring could increase because a lot of the work on the major new buildings is still in the early stages. So both workers and companies say the boom isn’t here yet. They foresee much more work in the coming months.

“It’s actually just starting now. Everything’s starting to come out of the ground, so by the end of the year, it should be pretty booming. It takes a while for these jobs to get off the ground, said Brown, of the building and trades council. “We’re going to get a ton of work. In less than 60 days, we’ll have a tremendous amount of employment going on.”

And once the bulk of the work starts, they say, it should continue for a while, giving workers renewed confidence that the next couple of years will be abundant with opportunities.

“It’s just good to see in Buffalo what’s going on,” said Chris Roth, 44, of Marilla, who said it has been “pretty steady” and “very busy,” as he worked on a door frame at One Canalside last week for his employer, Gypsum Systems. “Finally, something’s getting done.”

The construction trades have been kept busy during the last decade by work from public-sector spending. Projects such as the renovations of Buffalo schools, highway and bridge work, the new federal courthouse, and higher-education initiatives at the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State dominated the workload for years, even without significant stimulus dollars being spent in the region.

Even this summer, many contractors have relied on smaller-scale school, hospital and infrastructure projects to keep their employees busy, although Brown said that “there weren’t as many people on those jobs as there were in the past” and that work now is tapering off with the end of summer.

But the new projects, including work at the Medical Campus and many from private developers, will require more workers.

“It’s almost a daily basis where you hear about another purchase or project being planned,” said Turner’s Perrigo, whose company is the nation’s largest general contractor.

“So there is a legitimate, genuine uptick in the amount of work that’s happening. … When all these projects are coming on line, there will definitely be a shortage in labor in our area.”

“There’s a lot of anticipation,” said Kevin C. Schuler, spokesman for LPCiminelli, one of the area’s biggest contractors. “…There’s been a lot of talk about the development. We know it’s coming, but it hasn’t all kicked in yet. So the next two years will be great, and we’ll see what comes after.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com