Construction starts rising in Montana

Commercial construction starts are up in Montana.

Commercial construction starts are gaining traction in Montana, but some industry experts aren't sure how much improvement has been made in the employment sector despite the rising need for heavy equipment operators and skilled tradesman as industrial expansion projects, hotels and retail stores are being built.

"We are in an interesting time now because the statistics are showing that construction employment in Montana has continued to fall in 2013, compared with 2012, yet the anecdotal evidence is to the contrary," Carey Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, told The Great Falls Tribune.

Construction Monitor, a Utah-based company that compiles building permit data for more than 35 of Montana's 56 counties, revealed that there are $1.078 billion in commercial building permits so far in 2013. During the same timeframe in 2012, that figure was $828.99 million.

"The private sector is finally back investing in commercial development, which is hugely encouraging," said Hegreberg. "We are not back to the 2007 levels, but we seem to be recovering. When we look back, I think we'll see that 2012 was the bottom for construction activity in state."

From May 2012 to May 2013, Montana lost 2,300 construction jobs, which came to 9.7 percent of its workforce, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

The association's report stated that Montana had 21,300 people employed in the construction industry, which was down 35 percent from the construction apex in June 2007 when 33,000 people were employed in the sector.

"We are having a hard time getting our arms around what that means, compared with what people are sensing in the market," Hegreberg said. "It may also simply be that the stats have not caught up with the level of activity yet. The next few months will be interesting to see."

Where commercial projects are popping up
Blasted by job loss and housing troubles when the recession struck, Western Montana is starting to show positive strides with a large increase in retail construction projects.

"In Missoula there is the Cabela's and Kohl's retail stores," Hegreberg said. "And in the eastern part of the state, we are seeing hotel construction from Billings east, which of course is tied to the oil development activity."

According to Hegreberg, the largest retail project in Montana is likely the Scheels store going up in Billings. The project has a price tag of $17 million.

"You can see it on the horizon for miles away," Hegreberg said. "It is a striking project, one of the biggest in the state in a long time."

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