Building in county takes a tumbleAs a nationwide economic downturn continues to pound struggling U.S. builders, construction in Douglas County tumbled to its lowest level in years during 2008, according to a recently released report by the county’s land and resource management (LRM) department.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
Larry Puls isn’t likely to soon forget the year 2008.
As a nationwide economic downturn continues to pound struggling U.S. builders, construction in Douglas County tumbled to its lowest level in years during 2008, according to a recently released report by the county’s land and resource management (LRM) department.
As president of the Vikingland Builders Association (VBA) and owner of Alexandria-based LRP Construction, Puls knows the situation better than most.
“We started seeing this not just last fall, but a year ago last fall,” he said. “In late 2007, things were definitely starting to be noticeable.
“And then in 2008 things were slow. Real slow.”
County officials issued permits for roughly $29.2 million in new building projects last year, down 37 percent from $46.5 million in 2007, as construction levels declined across the board, according to LRM’s 2008 annual report.
“Applications for all types of permits were down 15 percent to 30 percent from  totals,” the report stated, “and down 30 percent to 50 percent from the five-year average.”
Excluding the city of Alexandria, which has its own building department, Douglas County furnished 445 land-use permits in 2008 for a total of 595 structures, compared to 523 permits for 830 individual buildings the year before. Housing declines totaled nearly half of the $17.3 million drop-off from 2007 to 2008.
“Although permit numbers and collected fees have been trending downward in the last five years, no one predicted the dramatic crash witnessed in 2008,” wrote Dave Rush, land and resource’s director, in a memo attached to the report.
There were 99 new homes built last year in Douglas County, 26 percent fewer than the 134 constructed in 2007 and 48 percent fewer than the five-year average of about 189 per year.
Home additions decreased by 30 percent in 2008 after rebounding slightly from 2006 to 2007.
Puls said many local builders have been hit hard by the slowdown because most are small, family owned businesses that get the bulk of their work from residential projects.
“I know guys who have been unemployed since October,” he said. “It hurts.”
After booming in the early 2000s and peaking at $54.5 million in 2003, development in the county had leveled off in recent years to an average rate of $44.3 million.
But the recession that struck in 2008 “brought development, real estate sales and construction to a near-standstill by year end,” according to the LRM report.
“Things slowed tremendously from September on,” Rush said in a phone interview Monday. “The number of permits we were pulling just dropped off.”
Puls said although he’s done a few small jobs in recent months, his last major project – a remodeling gig – was last October.
Projects were generally smaller in 2008 than in previous years, he said, and there seemed to be less to go around.
Rush said it’s normal for construction to slow down during the winter months, but usually things start picking up this time of year as people begin planning for projects in the spring.
So far, he said, his office isn’t seeing that this year.
“We are just as slow right now as we were in October of last year,” Rush said.
Rush said there are too many variables right now to predict what kind of year 2009 will be for construction in Douglas County, though he wouldn’t expect building numbers this year to be as high as they were in 2006, and probably not at the same level as in 2007.
Puls is more optimistic.
He said the VBA had significantly higher turnout for this year’s builders and remodelers show – held at Viking Plaza Mall last weekend – than it did in 2008.
Puls said his company already has a few projects lined up in the coming months, and he’s been hearing good things from other area contractors as well.
“I just feel … in the next year things are going to come around, but it’s going to be gradual,” he said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, but the good builders are going to survive.”