Tony Dobrowolski: Bridging the gap
We live in an area of Massachusetts that, because of its geography, has us located on the imaginary line that divides the Boston and New York metropolitan areas.
Berkshire County looks toward Boston because we're part of Massachusetts. But because the state capital is so far away we almost seem to be part of New York because of where we're situated.
This split is probably most prevalent in sports. The Red Sox and Yankees dominate the conversation around here during the summer months. You're either on one side or the other.
In business, it's rare to see a local company operate successfully in both the Boston and New York markets. But Unistress Corp. has managed to do that. The Pittsfield-based firm has supplied concrete products for both the Big Dig in Boston, and the new Yankee Stadium in New York. Other companies around here may have bridged the same gap, but I don't know of any that have done it with such high profile projects.
Now Unistress is about to become involved in another high-level project that affects the New York market, having just been awarded a $70 million contract to supply the concrete roadbed for the new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, a $3.9 billion project.
It's the largest contract in Unistress' 46-year history. And it gives Unistress a foothold in a new market -- bridges that are built with pre-cast concrete. Instead of pouring the concrete on site, the concrete pieces are manufactured elsewhere then transported to the job.
"We've done a few small jobs with concrete decks before, but there hasn't been a huge market for it," Unistress President Perri Petricca said. "[But] over the past five years there's been a real emphasis on getting away from those old-style steel decks where the concrete is poured into place.
"In New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts they're looking at the cost cycle, and they want these bridges to last because the cost of rehabbing them is tremendous," he said. "They're going to have to spend billions and billions to replace them, so that really favors pre-cast concrete.
"We see that market booming," Petricca added. "That's where we're going to target the company."
All of this is good news for Berkshire County where the unemployment rate is 6.3 percent, and the labor market is still reeling from North Adams Regional Hospital's sudden closure in March, which eliminated more than 500 jobs.
Unistress is the state's only manufacturer of prestressed concrete and one of only four firms in New England that supplies this product. Having a firm with little regional competition that can establish a beachhead in a growing market is always a plus.
According to Petricca, right now pre-cast concrete bridgework represents between a third and a quarter of Unistress' total dollar volume, which he estimates to be about $35 million per year. Again, that's now. While the market is still evolving. Due to the high cost of maintenance, Petricca said most of the entities that own and operate bridges are interested in building spans that can last for 100 years.
The current Tappan Zee bridge was built in 1955, and its condition illustrates why bridge owners are interested in making sure these new spans last.
According to New York Magazine, the current bridge "routinely" sheds chunks of concrete "like dandruff" into the river, and that engineering assessments have found that everything from steel corrosion to earthquakes (the bridge sits over an active fault line that wasn't discovered until after the current span was constructed) to maritime accidents could cause "major, perhaps, catastrophic" damage. Last summer, one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's aides apparently referred to the Tappan Zee as "the hold-your breathe-bridge," according to the magazine.
"With some of the largest bridges in the country, the trend is to design and pre-cast (concrete) so the market for this product is growing in leaps and bounds," Petricca said. "We want to be on the leading edge of this."
Petricca said Unistress has also submitted bids on two other major bridge construction projects -- the $1.5 billion reconstruction of the Goethals Bridge that connects Elizabeth, N.J. and Staten Island, N.Y., and the 31 2 mile Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey that links the cities of Newark and Jersey City.
If things work out the way the company plans, it's highly conceivable that more than the 100 additional employees Unistress plans to hire for the Tappan Zee project could be coming the Berkshires' way.
Given our geographical circumstances, that's something both Red Sox and Yankees' fans should be happy about.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle.
He can be reached at
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