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Local builders struggle for tech college projects

Miron Construction Co. Inc. wants to hire local subs for Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s campus projects, say representatives from the Neenah-based general contractor.

But — as was the case when leaders with the Fennimore college said they wanted to hire local general contractors for the estimated $26.2 million in projects — Miron must accept the lowest responsible bids.

The company, which is the apparent low bidder for the projects, is locked into its $21.4 million bid price and must protect its profit margin, said Larry Petron, Miron’s director of estimating.

The company reviewed sub bids Monday.

“We received a lot of bids for them, many of which were local, some of which were not because, frankly, in this job market, we’re getting bids from several states,” Petron said. “We did get a number of bids from the local community. Whether those bids were the most responsible, I can’t say.”

The college tried to help local builders win the projects by, among other things, removing bid bond requirements and dividing the work into 14 separate contracts to offer more options. But, as local builders predicted in February and March, a large general contractor submitted the lowest price in a single bid for all of the work.

“Whatever they tried, that didn’t happen,” said Neil Johnson, estimator for National Construction Inc., Blue Mounds. “Exactly what we thought would happen happened.”

SWTC President Karen Knox said the college must balance a desire for local participation with a need to get the best construction price for taxpayers. SWTC’s board will meet Thursday to decide which contractors will win the work, she said.

Knox said there is still hope local builders will be successful bidding for Miron’s subcontracts. If not, local businesses in other industries could benefit with a bunch of builders coming to town, she said.

“They’ll be staying in our motels and eating our food and buying gas in our district,” Knox said.

The prevailing wages required on the project made it more difficult for local nonunion contractors to compete, Johnson said. The wages on the project are much higher than those paid by many local builders, so it was easy for a large union contractor, accustomed to paying such wages, to step in and compete, he said.

“I’m for trying to get it cheaper, because we’re all paying for it,” Johnson said. “But if they wanted to get it cheaper, they could forget about the prevailing wages.”

SWTC appealed a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development determination of which prevailing wage should be paid on the project, but the appeal was unsuccessful. Knox said small, local subcontractors, many of which did not bid the project, said they would have trouble paying the prevailing wage.

“If there are two different wages within one business, it can lead to some hard feelings,” she said.

Petron said, just as Fennimore-area contractors are dealing with competition from contractors in other areas of Wisconsin, Miron is competing against contractors from other states.

“It makes it harder and harder, whether it be general contractor or subcontractor, to be successful,” he said.

“We’re trying to compete like everyone else because we need to keep our employees employed.”

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