Builders in Vermont's Deerfield Valley enjoying construction boom
WILMINGTON, VT. >> Business is booming for tradespeople in the Deerfield Valley of Vermont.
"I have people waiting for me," said Ray Reed, who runs Reed Construction. "One person's waiting four months to renovate a Greenspring [townhouse] unit. A lot of people are waiting for the right contractor."
His team is framing a 5,500-square-foot house, then they've got three 10,000-square-feet buildings to construct in the spring and summer. A 6,500-square-foot townhouse at Haystack Mountain, where the Hermitage Club operates a private ski resort, was recently completed by Reed's company. At Snow Vidda, close to the Mount Snow ski resort, they put up two 10,000-square-foot buildings which each have four residential units. A 15,000-square-foot project is being planned for the spring there.
Currently, Reed has nine employees on payroll who are putting in 40-plus hours each week.
"Normally, you don't have that many in general. In the summer, I had up to 18 to 20 guys," he said. "Everybody is so slammed, you can't take on everything. I learned that last year. The people who want to wait are waiting. It doesn't bother them."
Reed started his company only three years ago. At that time, he had three employees. He renovated The Vermont House, a hotel in downtown Wilmington, and later the White House Inn up the street. Both are Lorista Holdings properties. Lorista is now turning buildings on East Main Street in Wilmington into condo units.
Reed says the boom includes development at the Hermitage Club's private ski resort at Haystack Mountain — where a 10,000-square-foot base lodge and club house was built, chair lifts were upgraded and plans for a hotel are being drawn up — and Mount Snow, which is building a new body of water for enhancing snowmaking capabilities and it has plans to renovate a lodge and build housing near its Carinthia face.
Why the surge in activity? A Vermont economic analyst calls it "a pent-up demand for construction" following the housing market crash.
"People are coming up, not afraid to spend money," said Reed, who just poured concrete at a home on Valley View Road in Dover because if he didn't do it now he wouldn't get to it this year. "People are upgrading then selling. People are buying left and right."
He compares the trend to one he saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he first started building; nine Greenspring townhouses were sold before construction even began.
"I think it's great. I love every part of it," Reed said. "Families are getting fed. Everyone's getting paid. Even with no snow, people are here spending money."
While Wilmington Wastewater Treatment Plant mostly provides services to businesses downtown and has seen no residential additions to the system recently, a refurbishment project there required going outside the state.
"The contractor actually hired a carpenter out of Rindge, N.H., because they couldn't find anyone locally to do the building," said John Lazelle, plant chief operator. "Early on, the excavator digging guys, they couldn't find anyone locally. We ended up getting a company out of Shelburne, Mass., and Winchester, N.H., I believe. They tried. There just weren't people available."
Lazelle recalled a big boom in the 1980s, when homes at Chimney Hill and condo projects were being developed. He said the newest development is good for the valley.
Richard Sprague, who specializes in painting and dry wall, said he has been very busy for the last couple years.
"I only slow down a bit anyway because I've been doing it for 40 years," he laughed. "There's definitely a lot of new stuff going on. Outside of that whole Hermitage Club and Haystack thing, I see a lot of condos being bought and sold."
Some of his customers will book a project a year or year-and-a-half in advance, Sprague said, because they know he will be busy.
If a person was looking to have a room or two painted, Sprague would be getting to it by the end of July or beginning of August. Exterior jobs would have to wait until next year.
"I think everyone seems to be saying they're pretty busy, that things are looking good for the summer," Sprague said. "A lot of builders have been specking out new houses. Now, a lot of septic guys and engineers have been doing a lot of stuff for new houses."
Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sharon Cunningham has seen people come into the chamber office looking for land and property.
"I would definitely say it feels like there's a lot more development going on in the valley right now. A whole lot more," she said, adding that it wasn't all about building new houses. "People are doing a lot of renovations."
Sometimes, one contractor can fall behind at a job site, then it will throw off the schedule for other contractors who are supposed to work there. It can cause a different, unrelated project to become delayed. This can be frustrating for people and businesses, Cunningham noted.
Her brother's company, W2D Heating and Plumbing, had to hire an additional employee to take on all the work that was coming their way.
"I think it's a great time to be in those types of businesses in the valley," said Cunningham.
What's going on?
The construction industry took a major hit during the 2007 recession, said Vermont Economic and Labor Market Information Chief Mathew Barewicz.
"There was significant downsizing in employment in construction through 2008, 2009 and then it bottomed out in 2010," he said. "Most economists were forecasting it would get better."
That didn't really happen until 2014. Then early 2015 indicators showed construction was rebounding even better.
"There's been a pent-up demand for construction," said Barewicz. "The economic downturn was a big curve ball to the economy not just in Vermont but the nation overall."
As far as employment goes, there's another trend affecting the industry. It's one familiar to those keeping an eye on economic development in the southern Vermont region: an aging workforce. The demographic has increased the demand for new employees.
For several years now, the Department of Labor has been promoting apprenticeships in anticipation of the changing landscape. In many of the trades, Barewicz said people can start out earning average or above average wages.
"We're talking to young people about apprenticeships," he said. "It's a way to learn while you earn. It's a tremendous opportunity for people who might not be going into post secondary schooling."
John Redd, broker at SkiHome Realty, worked for Mount Snow in the 1970s and 1980s but has been in development since the 2000s.
"I would say over the last two years, it's improved dramatically," he said of the housing market. "I attribute most of that to the Hermitage Club. We actually call it the Hermitage Effect."
Prices on properties close to the Hermitage Club's have gone up, allowing Redd's group to resume building again.
Duplex town homes near the Hermitage Club's golf course were built by his group. Starting in 2005, 15 buildings went up. Things began quieting down in 2010.
"We were not building for about five years because the market evaporated. We just finished a building. Now, we're building another," Redd said. "They're selling in the 600s (thousands)."
Also noted was the Hermitage Club's purchasing traditional bed and breakfasts in the valley. They were staples of the 1970s and 1980s, said Redd.
"I think that's a dying business model," he said. "It's great that the Hermitage Club came in and bought up a bunch of inns to repurpose for staff housing then others for guests. It's great to see those properties put back into productive use."
In the last two years, he said his group has probably seen seven resales. With the average lifespan of a second home pegged at seven years, he sees this as natural. But once the resales "cleared up," he said it was time to build more.
The housing market was fairly robust from 2005 to 2007, according to Redd, but it was spread around the Mount Snow and Wilmington areas.
"Right now, things are pretty focused on within two miles of the Hermitage Club," he said. "I'd say Mount Snow is lagging a little but it's interesting. The inventory of condos is down from where it's been for the last seven years."
Only a couple units are currently available at Timber Creek, Greenspring and Seasons. Once projects being planned at Mount Snow get going, Redd expects "a huge stimulus" in the Mount Snow area.
Over half of the contractors hired for construction-related jobs at the Hermitage Club were local, meaning from Windham County, the company's attorney Bob Fisher told Wilmington's Planning Commission at a recent meeting.
The Hermitage Club's attracting higher-end people to the valley has definitely helped with economic growth, according to Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington's economic development consultant.
But where there's growth, there are pains. Havreluk said that's where the term "growing pains" came from.
"There's a lot of building going on," she said. "It's really hard on those service industry people because they have the resident who has an emergency situation with their whatever. It takes them longer to get to them because they have this other development going on. So that's a tough balance."
Still, Havreluk said things are looking up in the Deerfield Valley. In November when the leaves were gone and summer was over, she was surprised to see so many visitors walking down West Main Street mid-week.
"I was completely shocked," she said. "The weather was amazing but it was really great to see that. It's hopeful to see that we can become a true year-round resort community."
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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