James Westring is getting a lot of phone calls about weatherization work, but not much follow through.
“Interest is steady,” said Westring, the owner of Madison-based Westring Construction LLC. “I get people calling me up about weatherizing their homes, and then they go and get two or three other estimates. What’s not happening is signed contracts.”
State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, wants to turn that around. Wisconsin does not yet know its share of a recently announced federal stimulus grant program to provide more than $11 billion nationwide for energy efficiency projects. But Mason — under a bill introduced this week — would use the money in a revolving loan program that would combine the stimulus money with investment from private utilities to encourage more homeowners to weatherize their homes.
Mason said his bill would help homeowners pay for improvements, create weatherizing jobs and stretch the stimulus money.
The idea, Mason said, is simple. If the average home weatherization estimate is $6,500, few families are likely to follow through.
“Most folks just don’t have that right now,” he said.
But if the state can provide low or no-interest loans to families considering weatherization, he said, that is an incentive for the homeowners to get the work done and expands job opportunities for the industry.
Instead of homeowners getting the grants directly from a set amount of stimulus money, Mason said, the program would allow borrowers to repay loans through utility or municipal bills. It also would encourage private utilities to invest in the program, he said, and the combination of public and private money can be sustained for years and potentially weatherize thousands of buildings.
Mason announced the bill Monday at the First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship Training Center in Racine.
Olatoye Baiyewu, First Choice’s executive director, said he wants the bill to open up opportunities for more hiring and weatherization work, but a jobs boom will not happen if the work is confined to private homes.
“If and when contractors start looking at commercial properties to do these weatherization projects,” he said, “that’s when you’re really going to see more work happen.”
Westring, whose company renovates and remodels homes and commercial buildings, said most of his recent projects have been for homeowners.
“I think in the last year, I’ve done maybe four commercial building jobs,” Westring said. “I think that work might increase, particularly if these incentives are out there, but as of now there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity on that end.”
Even if the work is limited to residential projects, it would be welcomed by Anna Fell, a labor apprentice for Laborers Local 113 who is laid off for the season.
“As far as how long people will be able to work on these weatherization projects, I don’t know,” she said. “But there are a lot of guys I know that haven’t worked at all in months. We’ve lost a lot of companies that have been around for awhile. If the government can help people put money back into the economy, that helps.
“There are a lot of people wondering how they’re going to afford next month’s bills.”
In addition to homeowners keeping a close eye on their wallets, weatherization work also has been slow because the state is still trying to develop a market for it, Mason said.
“There are about 2.2 million buildings in this state that need retrofitting,” he said. “The federal government is not going to send Wisconsin enough money to weatherize every one of them. So you have to create that market. You have to make sure employers are there and you have to make sure workers are trained.”
Plenty of contractors are prepared to handle weatherization projects, Westring said. But the question is whether low or no-interest loans will turn his prospects into contracts.
“I’m hopeful,” he said. “I think if there are incentives, it can provide a big help. But it’s still too early to say what’s going to happen. I haven’t seen a big jump in the work in some time.”