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Bills stadium, Wilson Park, Amazon impact construction

Jun 17, 2023

Stuart Harper and Howard Rich have worked hard for months to realize a shared vision for a new development project.

Harper, president of Build Promise, and Rich, a volunteer and board member, want to create a shelter for men experiencing homelessness on the East Side campus of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy. The project has received city approvals, and architects are completing their drawings and construction documents.

The goal, Rich said during a recent site tour, is to be “ready in January, to start bidding and then put a shovel in the ground.”

“If there’s anybody left who’s not working on the stadium,” Harper cautioned.

Harper’s remark, made partly in jest, may come true sooner than he thought.

Developers, general contractors and construction firms are watching their future project pipelines and needs with a wary eye toward the $1.54 billion Buffalo Bills stadium.

Construction of the enormous new Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park is still in the early stages, but developers, contractors and construction firms are already watching their future project pipelines and needs with a wary eye.

One of the biggest developments in this area in decades, construction of the enormous new Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park is still in the early site-clearing and preparation stages, with about 10% of the bids awarded.

But it is expected to pick up steam in the coming months and will last for three years. In turn, that will put a major strain on the supply of labor, equipment and supplies in the region while also driving up prices.

An aerial view of construction at the new Bills stadium site across the street from Highmark Stadium.

“We’re just at the infancy of what I think will be a very, very busy time for contractors and subcontractors in general,” said Douglas Elia, president of Montante Construction.

Construction has also begun on the $110 million transformation of the former LaSalle Park into Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Park on Buffalo’s West Side. And internet retail giant Amazon is expected to start work at some point on its new, $550 million mega-distribution center in the Town of Niagara, near Niagara Falls International Airport.

Work is ongoing to transform the former LaSalle Park into Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park in Buffalo, another significant local project that's impacting Western New York's pool of labor and materials.

That is three major construction projects going on simultaneously, drawing from the same pool of talent, cement, dump trucks, cranes, excavators, bulldozers and other machinery. And that doesn’t include the usual array of summertime construction for public infrastructure.

“They haven’t even really gotten into full, full swing yet, and it for sure is impacting contractors, workforce and materials,” said Joseph W. Benedict Jr., executive director of the Construction Exchange of Buffalo and Western New York.

Amazon is expected to start work at some point on its new, $550 million mega-distribution center in the Town of Niagara, near Niagara Falls International Airport.

Other factors are at play, as well, including a significant level of school construction and public infrastructure investments by the state and federal governments.

“There was a lot of catch-up coming out of the pandemic,” Benedict said. “There’s only so many people to do the roadwork, and some of those people also work on buildings.”

Heavy equipment helps get construction underway on the Buffalo Bills' new $1.5 billion stadium. As construction workers dig a deep hole at the stadium site, they are following a plan developed by LaBella Associates, a Rochester-based civil engineering firm.

Adding pressure, the options for relief from nearby areas aren’t necessarily realistic. There was an expectation that the Bills and their general contractors, Gilbane Building Co. and Turner Construction Co., would draw from a much larger regional area, extending east to Albany and New York City, as well as to Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

But “there’s big projects everywhere,” Benedict added, citing the $209 million Edwards Vacuum development in Genesee County, the $650 million Fairlife production facility in suburban Rochester and Micron Technology’s $100 billion semiconductor facility in Syracuse. “There’s not many places to bring people in from,” he said. “Everybody’s short everywhere.”

Construction crews excavate the site of the new Buffalo Bills stadium on Aug. 18, 2023. (Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News)

A portion of the problem predates any of the three projects, stemming instead from the supply-chain, worker shortage and inflationary pressures coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. The construction workforce has also been shrinking for years, as older laborers retire and fewer young people go into the trades to backfill those jobs.

Construction of the $1.54 billion new Highmark Stadium is expected to pick up steam in the coming months and will last for three years.

“There’s just not a lot of extra capacity out there,” said James A. Panepinto, owner of Pinto Construction Services.

Contractors say they had to boost pay to retain and attract workers after so many experienced construction workers retired during the pandemic, said Mark Bielefeld, senior engineering assistant for the Town of Cheektowaga. And, he said, he is sure some contractors are declining to bid on smaller municipal projects when they can try to work on large private-sector work.

“They’re at the Bills stadium. They’re at LaSalle Park. They’re going to be at Amazon when that gets going,” Bielefeld said.

To be sure, the issues are not being felt across all construction trades or sectors to the same degree.

“It’s way too early for that to happen,” said Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building & Construction Trades Council. “It might be different a year from now, but right now, it’s not a problem.”

But both public-sector and private-sector developers and contractors say they are already seeing the result.

It is showing up in fewer contractors bidding on projects because they are anticipating being tied up. Bid prices are coming back much higher than expected or budgeted. Lead times for ordering materials are growing, and project schedules are being extended.

At Montante, for example, Elia said he is starting to hear subcontractors specifically cite the stadium as a factor, even in specialized trades that aren’t needed on site yet.

“They’re thinking ahead,” he said. “I think we’re going to start to hear it more and more.”

Construction is underway to transform the former LaSalle Park into the Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park in Buffalo, Aug. 23, 2023.

Picone Construction Corp. even directed its estimators “to back off” on new bids because it can’t get enough contractors or workers.

“We used to get four to six bids for each of those trades,” company owner and President Anthony J. Picone Sr. said. “Now we’re getting one, if we’re lucky, two. It’s brutal out there.”

Costs are going up so fast that pricing is unpredictable and budgets are unreliable after just a short while, let alone a long delay. “In the past, if you did an estimate a year ago, you’re still within 5%,” Panepinto said. “Now, if your budget is a year old, throw it in the garbage. It could be a 30-40 percent difference.”

Construction is underway to transform the former LaSalle Park into the Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park in Buffalo, Aug 23, 2023.

Among the busiest now are companies that specialize in clearing sites, digging holes, moving dirt, transporting materials, and mixing or pouring concrete.

“That is on everyone’s radar,” Panepinto said. “That business is definitely being impacted.“

Picone recalls years ago being able to call up a concrete supplier in the morning to get as much as he needed for that afternoon. Now, he needs to call two weeks ahead of time.

As a result, “customers are looking for work to start now, and contractors, with the work they already have and the backlog they have, that’s not happening,” Benedict added. “It’s getting pushed to next year or even later.”

Take the Buffalo Public Schools. The district’s building projects this summer weren’t affected by the stadium. But future projects already are.

“In our discussions for 2025-2026 projects, we’ve been told it will be awfully hard to get cement in the area for a good year,” said David Hills, the district’s chief operating officer.

To be sure, it is difficult to pin the rising costs on any particular factor such as the pending construction at the stadium, municipal and school district officials said.

In Cheektowaga, the Town Board on Monday rejected a bid for renovations at the Alexander Community Center because the town received just a single bid for the job, and it came back tens of thousands of dollars higher than expected, Bielefeld said.

In fact, across the board, he said, bids on projects are coming in 15% or 20% higher than the town expected or than it would have received a year or two ago.

The Town of Tonawanda is also seeing a ripple effect, Town Engineer Matthew Sutton said. “We are seeing fewer bidders on these projects that have a significant amount of outdoor site work,” he said. “The contractors are already tied up.”

Tonawanda’s recreation enhancement project, highlighted by a new ice arena and splash pad at Brighton Park, was well underway last week.

Tonawanda’s recreation enhancement project, highlighted by a new ice arena and splash pad at Brighton Park, is well underway, and most bids came back in line with the town’s estimates.

But one piece – construction of a grove building and other site amenities – generated just one bid, from Montante Construction, at a cost of $1.74 million. That’s far above the town’s $1.2 million budget, Sutton said, and it’s why he recommended the Town Board reject Montante’s bid.

On another pair of projects to construct inclusive playgrounds at Mang and Kenney parks, the town received multiple bids in April. But they again came in higher than expected, and were again rejected by the Town Board.

And Sutton said bids to replace concrete, which came in at less than $10 per square foot in 2020, are now coming in at $30 per square foot.

“It’s not just one thing that’s causing all of it, and we’re doing what we can to plan for it,” Sutton said.

Tonawanda School Superintendent Timothy Oldenburg said the $54 million project to renovate and expand Fletcher Elementary School, which reopens this fall, likely would soar to nearly $70 million if work went out to bid now.

And, he said, finding enough workers to do the construction – and to finish on the same timeline – also would be challenges.

“So many of the contractors and subcontractors are being deployed to the stadium area. And then you have the supply chain issues. The cost of supplies,” he said. “I mean, something as simple as a two-by-four is completely prohibitive, compared to what it was four years ago.”

News Staff Reporter Ben Tsujimoto contributed to this report.

Site work is underway where the new Buffalo Bills stadium is under construction across the street from the current Highmark Stadium.

Reach Jonathan D. Epstein at (716) 849-4478 or [email protected].

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