The concrete foundation of Allentown's $272 million arena complex has begun to rise at Seventh and Hamilton streets, along with the number of yellow-vested construction workers.
It is a welcome sight to an army of local tradesmen whose livelihoods took a beating in the Great Recession.
For ironworker Carl Graves, 33, of Easton, the arena project didn't just put him back to work in a tough construction market, it gave him his family back.
With construction in the Lehigh Valley at a near halt the past four years, Graves has had to accept jobs as far as 100 miles away. During his six months working on a job at New York University Medical Center last year, the four-hour round-trip commute left him little time to spend with his wife and sons, ages 5 and 1.
"You've got to go where the work is, but most days I barely got home in time to kiss my kids good night," said Graves, a member of Ironworkers Local 36 in Whitehall Township. "Now I have a 20-minute commute and I'm home for dinner. I'm hoping this job lasts a long, long time."
The work is not only being created at the 8,500-seat hockey arena. Across Seventh Street, North Star Construction Management is building an 11-story office building for City Center Investment Corp. that will house National Penn Bank's new headquarters. A block west, Alvin H. Butz Inc., which is managing the arena construction, is expanding its own headquarters building.
At their peak, the three projects are expected to employ more than 900 mostly union construction workers.
In its public presentations last year, city officials predicted arena construction would create 500 jobs in Allentown. But the addition of a 180-room hotel and eight-story office building to the complex means even more jobs.
"There is going to be a day when you are going to look out on that site and you are going to see 600 to 630 people working over there," said Sara Hailstone, Allentown's director of community and economic development. Construction on the arena is expected to peak in late 2013 or early 2014.
Construction of City Center, an 11-story tower, will employ 300 to 350 workers at its peak, while the Butz building, which is ahead of the two other projects, will employ 35 construction workers at its peak, and 125 total over the life of the project, which is on target for completion in April.
Right now, the numbers are far lower. The Butz and City Center projects each currently employs about 20-25 workers. There are about 100 workers at the arena site.
Construction on the arena and National Penn's headquarters is expected to last into mid-2014.
The frenzy of construction activity comes at a critical time for hard-hit unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said Brett Helfrich, business manager of IBEW Local 375 in Allentown and president of the Lehigh Valley Building Trades Council.
"It's a definite shot in the arm," Helfrich said. "It has been a very slow go over the last three years. It is definitely going to help local people put food on their tables and hopefully bring back their ability to provide for their families, for sure."
Over the last few years, nearly half the union's 900 members have been out of work at any given time, Helfrich said. Some have left to take jobs outside the trade. The last local project to approach the magnitude of the arena was the Sands casino in Bethlehem, which was completed in 2009.
Thanks to natural gas-drilling work in rural Pennsylvania, the economy hasn't been as harsh to the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has been able to provide work for nearly all its members, said James Reilly, president of Local 542 in Fort Washington, Montgomery County. But union members, who operate heavy equipment, have had to travel far and wide to get it.
About 20 of the union's members are operating heavy equipment at the arena site as the foundation is being laid.
Joseph Colucci, president of Ironworkers Local 36, said the union is down to about 125 members in the Valley, largely because dozens have left the region, or the profession, to find work elsewhere. Of those who are left, as many as half could be like Graves and work on the arena project when it begins raising steel.
"It's been a tough four years," Colucci said. "But we have high hopes for 2013."
Third-generation ironworker Todd Dewalt, 46, of Allentown shared Graves' story of long commutes and long stretches of unemployment before signing on to the arena project. To Dewalt, who bought his grandfather's east Allentown home, the new job means more than a steady paycheck.
"I love my city and I really believe this project is going to be a turning point," Dewalt said. "This is going to change a lot. I'm kind of proud to be part of that change."
Labor leaders expect most of the workers they supply to come from the Lehigh Valley. Because the arena is in a low-income neighborhood with a large minority population, Mayor Ed Pawlowski has asked the unions to employ minorities on the project, said Reilly, who added the Operating Engineers union has managed to fill about 15 percent of the jobs with minority workers and hopes to add more.
The local job market for construction workers has been abysmal since the end of 2008.
Construction and mining jobs in the Lehigh Valley peaked at 17,800 in August 2007 before cratering at 10,500 in February 2010 on the heels of the economic collapse, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Most of those lost jobs are still lost. In November, the number of construction jobs was still struggling to break 12,500.
That's because the housing market, while showing signs of life, still hasn't completely recovered, Lehigh University economics professor Tom Hyclak said.
"Home building is a big part of the market for construction workers," Hyclak said. "Even though people are talking about things looking brighter for the housing market, it is still the case that home-building activity is substantially below the levels of 2007 and 2005."
The work in downtown Allentown may pick up some of the slack and will offer jobs that pay more than those in residential construction, he said.
While there is no formal agreement laying out a union hiring requirement, the city specified union labor when it solicited bids for the arena complex.
In the Northeast, it makes sense to use union contractors on a project the size of the arena to ensure an adequate supply of skilled labor, said Henry Koffman, director of the construction and engineering and management program at the University of Southern California.
Pawlowski, who is running for a third term, was the beneficiary in 2011 of more than $30,000 in union campaign donations and is an unabashed supporter of local unions. Helfrich introduced the mayor at his formal campaign announcement.
Union labor, Helfrich said, is a natural choice for a job with the complexity and scope of the arena project.
"We have a pool of people who are highly trained and can do their job," he said. "We take pride, as with all the buildings trades. We train our people. We have an apprenticeship program. We have the quality tradesmen."
Lehigh Valley Construction jobs
Nov. 2007: 16,600 jobs
Nov. 2008: 15,100 jobs.
Nov. 2009: 12,700 jobs.
Nov. 2010: 12,700 jobs
Nov. 2011: 12,500 jobs
Nov. 2012: 12,400 jobs
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (category includes mining jobs)
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