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Industry split over stimulus success

By Paul Snyder

Contractors disagree over what federal stimulus money will mean to the industry in 2010.

“Most contractors are feeling the pain right now,” said Bob Barker, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. “Some are doing better than others and have been able to take advantage of opportunities with renovating multifamily buildings, doing weatherstripping or HVAC.

“It’s money that will put someone to work, but it’s not a great impact on our market.”

Barker predicted 2010 will be one of the worst years in a decade for work output when he testified last week before the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.

Yet the day before, Mark Wagner, vice president of government relations for Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee, told the Wisconsin Public Policy Forum he expects a lot of stimulus-related action in 2010.

“The opportunities are varied and all over the place,” Wagner said. “There’s work in heating, ventilation, renewable energy, and a lot of this money has just started to flow into the states, so there’s a whole bunch of pipelines out there.”

Johnson Controls has the reach to consider job pipelines throughout the country. In addition to pursuing 75 contracts in southeast Wisconsin, the company is chasing stimulus-related contracts with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy.

That’s an opportunity not available to all Wisconsin contractors. John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., said there are limits to what the stimulus money can accomplish.

“I know there are some smaller contractors going after the retrofits and weatherization,” he said, “but if you’re not at the level or you’re not playing at the national level, there’s not a lot in the middle.”

Some major general contractors in the state are, for one reason or another, stuck in the middle.

“I can look and see we did $600 million in business this year,” said Dennis Lynch, general manager of Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. Inc.’s Madison office. “Of that, I don’t know if 10 percent — or even 5 percent — was stimulus-related.”

Weatherization projects might work for small contractors, Lynch said, but a $10,000 project that could be split into different contracts, for example, cannot justify Miron putting in the effort to fill out all of the federal government forms.

Wagner agreed reaping stimulus rewards is based on a contractor’s location and area of expertise, but he said there still will be more work in 2010 than in 2009.

“It’s fire hose-type water going through a garden hose,” he said. “I know it’s frustrating for a lot of people to wait in the process, but you have to ask if you’ve positioned yourself at a point when opportunities are out there for bid.”

Lynch said he’s not holding his breath for those opportunities.

“It’s hard to find them,” he said. “When the stimulus reporting first started earlier this year and the state set up its Web site, I tracked everything that came out for six months. It was all road construction or teeny stuff.

“I’m going to keep up on it, but there just seems to be a lot of smoke. You keep grabbing and get nothing.”

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