Construction Roundtable: Insiders View of the Impacts from COVID-19 and the Economic Slowdown

Construction Roundtable: Insiders View of the Impacts from COVID-19 and the Economic Slowdown

Prior to the Global Pandemic, the construction industry in the Upstate was hitting on all cylinders with business strong in most sectors. Since the start of the pandemic, the construction industry is still going strong in some sectors, but there are others in which projects have slowed or stopped. We asked representatives from four local companies: Todd Horne from Clayton Construction, D.J. Doherty from Mavin Construction, Joe Pazdan from McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture and Neal Workman of Trehel Corporation, to provide us with an insiders view on how things are looking as we move towards the final quarter of 2020.

Q: In what ways, if at all, have you seen your business impacted by the pandemic?

A:  Joe Pazdan: The pandemic has significantly impacted the way we work. I am accustomed to having my team close at hand, with impromptu conversations and quick charrettes or design reviews that took a few minutes without scheduling. Collaboration now has to be intentional and often scheduled so for me, I have had to learn to work differently.

More importantly, I miss our team and the culture we have built taking care of one another. I miss experiencing the daily joys and struggles of the individuals in our firm from being together in the office.

Neal Workman: On a national level, we have witnessed investor and market insecurity, which trickles down and directly impacts local economics. At Trehel, we have experienced a disruption of decision-making, which has led to a “wait and see attitude” with projects being delayed and impacting new business procurement. The pandemic has created a heavy demand for our technology dependency and prompted us to continue expanding our capabilities.

There have been positive benefits as well; the unusual circumstances have allowed us to express care to our employees in new ways. We have adopted flex schedules, workflows, new processes, and the expanded use of communication tools, which otherwise may have been overlooked until they became a necessity.

Todd Horne: The biggest impact Clayton Construction has seen from the pandemic is our ability to congregate, converse, and work in what we knew as the traditional office environment. For all work, but especially in construction, an ability to meet with our clients and team members to review items from design coordination to product delivery is paramount. We have had to adapt from our traditional approaches and get creative with the implementation of technology to ensure we are operating as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

Q: What unexpected impacts have you seen—good or bad—on the construction industry?

A: D.J. Doherty: Safety on a jobsite is always a primary focus throughout any type of commercial project, with an emphasis of constantly looking out for others on the site.  The Covid pandemic created a shift in some ways because any failure to follow guidelines put others at risk.  This shift was a recognizable awkwardness at first but quickly transitioned into much more of a comradery and recognition that those we work alongside can have just as much impact on your health through their actions as you create with your own.  Personal boundary lines became much more well defined and who was allowed within them was scrutinized more diligently.  While this could have created added tension, it also provided an opportunity to instead strengthen the bonds with those in our inner circles.  It encouraged a new emphasis on how the risks of personal choices/actions can convey to everyone around us.  While it could have been divisive, we have instead seen Covid serve as a rallying cry for the safety of the whole team.  The personal relationships between those working together daily have been strengthened and are flourishing with trust and accountability.  The cultural health of the team is no longer described as an idealistic goal but embraced as an expectation and starting point for individuals to be part of that team and enjoy it’s culture, knowing how to contribute by enhancing and strengthening each personal relationship.

Todd Horne: Clayton Construction has seen several unexpected impacts due to the pandemic. Our team has remained vigilant in mitigating the outbreak. Specifically, we have developed a COVID-19 Exposure Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Plan that has been implemented throughout our company and jobsites.

Another impact to our industry has been manufacturing plant shutdowns, material shortages and/or material delays resulting from the pandemic. All of this has made scheduling and coordination a challenge on projects where you are forecasting delivery/turnover sometimes 12 to 18 months in advance.

Although we have experienced some challenges, our region is still seeing a tremendous amount of growth and we are confident that the construction industry will continue to thrive in the Upstate.

Neal Workman: Since the industry was considered essential, projects have continued to progress at a somewhat normal pace without lengthy shutdowns. We have embraced online communication technologies, such as Zoom, that allow us to hold meetings virtually without exposure to the virus. While this has been effective, we have sacrificed the personal connection and collaboration, which historically has been vital to our business practices.

One of the most significant challenges has been managing the emotional “fear” of workers on our jobsites versus adapting to the pandemic’s real threat. In addition, we have experienced delays in deliveries and price increases, especially related to wood products due to manufacturing facilities either closed or operating with limited production capacity.

Q: In what ways is the building industry uniquely positioned to play a part in the economic recovery of the Upstate?

A: D.J. Doherty: The construction industry has enjoyed significant growth in the years leading up to the pandemic.  To support this demand most companies expanded their capacity, improved internal processes and learned how to work smarter.  The urgency of every project seemed to be ratcheted up , and delivery models for projects shifted with design build, partnering and CM@R arrangements becoming much more frequent.  The Covid pandemic placed much of the industry in a place of uncertainty about what the future holds and some adjustment was required by many to adapt to less opportunities and in some occasions reduced urgency.  The capacity and ability of the industry are still intact across the Upstate and Covid has provided just enough of a break that much of the industry completed the strategic initiatives for improved processes and better communication.  These initiatives were longer term goals but were quickly achieved out of necessity to survive, and will serve the Upstate well with an improved ability to move an idea or need from concept to shovels in the ground in the most efficient way possible.  The pandemic has hurt but also provided for better/stronger/wiser/faster processes that support recovery at record breaking pace.

Q: In what business sectors are you seeing the most activity? Are there any that surprise you? Please explain.

A: Joe Pazdan: Industrial has strengthened for the time being – eCommerce was already significant, but much more important now with so many working from home. Seeing distribution, warehousing and also manufacturing continue to invest.

Need for healthcare facilities still strong, but has had some fits and starts as they have been focused on fighting the virus and a downturn on revenue due to lack of surgeries. Seems to have settled and projects continue – it has been remarkable how our healthcare administrators and professionals have weathered through this storm.

Hospitality, retail and civic work is slower for us.

The loss in higher ed investments – a market that has been very stable, surprised us.  We admire the college and university presidents, along with K12 superintendents who have had to manage through this effort and wonder how this will impact long term investments.

Seems to be a lot of institutional money on the sidelines and developers continuing to look for new opportunities.

 

Ten at the Top Hires Intern to Support Regional Comprehensive Plan Update

Ten at the Top Hires Intern to Support Regional Comprehensive Plan Update

Ten at the Top (TATT) has hired Kyle Dool, a second year graduate student in the City & Regional Planning program at Clemson University, to review and update the Upstate Comprehensive Plan Analysis originally completed in 2015 in support of TATT’s Upstate Professional Planners work group.

As many counties have revised, updated, or rewritten their comprehensive plans over the last five years, this project will update the work from the previous comprehensive plan review, identify new commonalities between the plans, and connect these ideas with current programs being developed within Upstate South Carolina. There also will be an increased look at the connection between land use and transportation.

Dool will review each county’s comprehensive plan, identify common themes, provide key takeaways and identify the top three long-range plan priorities for each local government. Though they were not included in the 2015 analysis, Ten at the Top also will be looking at select city plans for this review.

Phil Lindler, Greenwood City/County Planning Director and co-chair of the Upstate Professional Planners group, says, “We are pleased to have Kyle Dool working with us. This project will draw on a number of planning areas that he has direct experience with—land use development, transportation, economics, and natural resources. We are excited to see the results of his work as we once again compare and contrast the land use objectives of the region.”

The project is structured so that there will be deliverables throughout both the fall and spring semester. In addition, there will be a project steering committee, co-chaired by Lindler and Michael Forman from GSP International Airport, that includes public and private planners from across the region. The steering committee will support Dool over the year by providing technical expertise and information.

The results from the Comprehensive Plan Update will be shared with local governments, Upstate planners and the general public at various points throughout the year.

Upstate Virtual Listening Tour Summary

Upstate Virtual Listening Tour Summary

General Overview

While cities, counties, businesses and organizations across the Upstate continue to address public health and economic issues related to the global pandemic, Ten at the Top remains committed to serving as a regional convener and connector to help support local efforts and grow the Upstate’s collective capacity.

To help better understand the concerns and challenges being faced by communities across the Upstate, Ten at the Top recently completed a “Listening Tour” of the seven non-urban counties in the region (all counties except Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg). Each session included input from leaders from local governments, community organizations, businesses and other local stakeholders.

While each county had its own nuances and distinct approach to responding to the pandemic, there were a number of similarities across the region.

  • Most encouragingly, each county reported that overall the response to provide needed services to those facing immediate hardship has been successful in meeting the general needs of all residents, including children, seniors and college students. Another commonality has been a collaborative spirit as many local entities, including some that had not previously worked together, have collaborated to meet the needs of local residents.
  • Communication has been an important element and communities have used a variety of methods to ensure that residents are aware of programs as well as health services. Social media has played an important role in many communities, but with a significant portion of residents in rural counties not serviced by high speed internet, that approach has not reached all residents.
  • Accessible and affordable internet was a theme across the region. In some communities, school buses were deployed to help residents connect to internet, especially to assist students. However, with transportation also being an issue for some residents, reaching an internet hot spot was not always possible.
  • With many businesses shut down for an extended period of time due to the stay-at-home order issued by Governor McMaster, there is great concern about how quickly small businesses can recover. Many communities have worked with business service agencies to help ensure their business owners are able to connect to government support programs developed to reduce the impacts on local businesses. In addition, many local business organizations have been providing marketing and promotional support for local businesses.
  • One interesting commonality among the communities is that while COVID-19 has spotlighted issues including internet accessibility and fragility of small businesses in rural communities, there are also a number of issues that were of concern prior to COVID-19 that remain priorities across the Upstate.
  • Mobility and lack of transportation access has become a regional priority in recent years, especially for many residents of rural communities who are unable to improve their personal economic mobility due to lack of access to transportation. Skill training also remains an issue in many Upstate counties as the technical colleges, Workforce Boards and others continue to provide a critical service to help people gain skills needed for higher paying jobs.

During each session, members of the Ten at the Top team asked a specific set of questions around the topics of general collaboration, economic development & small businesses, infrastructure & mobility and social services, public health and education. Below are composite summaries of the general feedback heard across the region. You can also read each of the county specific summaries through this link.

Polling Questions

For all counties except for Cherokee, participants were provided with a series of poll questions and asked to rank on a scale of 1–10 (I being not at all met and 10 being totally met) their impression on the response for each category.

 

County AbbevilleCherokeeGreen-woodLaurensOconeePickensUnion
Number of Responses 7210158129
When it comes to social services and health care in your county, how do you feel your community’s personal well-being needs have been met?Avg.887887
Mean787786
Min563664
Max991010109
Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your manufacturers and other larger employers have been met?Avg.7788987
Mean7787886
Min7675675
Max8810101098
Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your restaurants and retail stores have been met?Avg.666766
Mean656665
Min533343
Max79101099
Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your local (non-chain or franchise) small businesses and entrepreneurs have been met?Avg.6666765
Mean5665665
Min4641443
Max7691010108
Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your schools, colleges, and universities have been met?Avg.677887
Mean677787
Min553364
Max78101099
Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your local and county governments have been met?Avg.767887
Mean757886
Min525664
Max910910108

 

Collaboration

Questions asked by Dean Hybl, Executive Director

What role has collaboration played in communities across the Upstate as they respond to COVID-19?

Whether it be previously developed collaborative partnerships or ones created specifically to collectively respond to COVID-19, collaboration has clearly been critical in all communities during the pandemic. Collaboration has been used by different communities to share information, identify resources and implement needed services. The result has been a general feeling in most Upstate counties that the response to COVID-19 has been a team effort with everyone playing their own specific role in the effort.

Are there any examples of communities being pro-active in their approaches?

Prior to COVID-19, Pickens County had passed a state of emergency ordinance that called for city agencies to automatically coordinate with each other during a state of emergency. As a result, when a number of agencies had limited day-to-day work due to COVID-19, those employees were repurposed to help the community in various ways, including distributing meals on wheels, collecting food and assisting the United Way.

Economic Development & Small Business

Questions asked by Erin Ouzts, Entrepreneur Ecosystem Coordinator

In general, what was the state of small businesses & entrepreneurs in the Upstate prior to COVID-19 and how does that set things up for recovery? Generally growing, expanding and starting to thrive.  Many new businesses getting started.

What were some of the major impacts seen by small businesses during COVID-19Closings and shifting to curb-side delivery.  Scrambling to understand and get PPP and EIDL loans.  How to get funding for under-the-table workers and non-legally-registered organizations. Exposure of their lack of understanding of internet usage to get information and post updated information.  Challenges that came with not knowing where or how to look for and find information.  Lack of clean/updated financial documents led to extra work by banks and accountants.  Having fast enough internet at home, or even access at all, hampered attempts to do online activities.

Please share any unique programs or support efforts that were undertaken across the region.  $75k spent on advertising for “shop local”; technology audit; community-based loan funds popping up everywhere.  Sandwich board signs for downtown businesses.

What established resources were most helpful to small businesses & entrepreneurs during the crisis? SBDC, Chambers, county and city economic development organizations

What was the general experience and challenges around utilizing EIDL & PPP programs? Scrambling to understand PPP and EIDL loans.  Not having a big-bank relationship. How to get funding for under-the-table workers and non-legally-registered organizations. Challenges that came with not knowing where or how to look for and find information.  Lack of clean/updated financial documents led to extra work by banks and accountants.  Banks trying to process applications and answer questions while the rules were still being decided.

Is there a general lesson that COVID-19 has taught local communities and/or small business owners?  Have the business of our business in order (legal, financial, accounting); be nimble and able to shift resources to maximize opportunity for revenue quickly; know how to use the internet, social media, etc. to post AND find updated information.

In general, how have manufacturers and larger employers fared during COVID-19? Most have fared well. They are moving to smaller groups of employees at a time and are adjusting for social distancing.  Seems that other than getting through to unemployment office, getting the unemployment insurance was something most employees pursued.

Share examples of best practice efforts by counties to support manufacturers. SBDC weekly information sessions and webinars.  SBDC phone meetings and ability to set appointments online, plus loan programs, help with setting guidelines.

Please share any potential programs, collaborative efforts or other initiatives that could be implemented to support communities, businesses & entrepreneurs across the region. Community loan programs, technology training, advertising and promotion support, additional social media campaigns by city and chambers, webinars on how-to proceed through and implement the many changes.

Infrastructure & Mobility

Questions asked by Michael Hildebrand, Director, Upstate Mobility Alliance

Provide a general overview of rural mobility challenges in the Upstate. Generally speaking, the mobility challenges in our rural communities are focused in two areas: a lack of accessible public transportation options and minimal infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes. These challenges limit access to work, medical, and other community resources.

What are some of the specific challenges related to mobility? Several communities currently do not have access to any public transportation system. In other communities that have a public transportation system, often these systems do not serve the entire county which leaves areas without any transit option. An additional challenge is the lack of transportation to educational opportunities. Finally, the lack of safe walking and biking paths limits access to employment opportunities.

As employees return to work, what have been some of the challenges to overcome? Communities are finding that financial and educational literacy is a challenge to returning to work. Additionally, since most information about job postings and work opportunities are online, the ability to communicate with potential workers has been an issue in communities that lack strong internet availability. Finally, finding transportation options to get to work has been a challenge.

What has been the experience around broad band across the Upstate? The lack of widely available broadband service is a major issue for most rural communities. Where broadband is available, the cost is a barrier for individual users.

Please share any potential regional efforts that could help support infrastructure and mobility challenges in rural areas across the Upstate. Efforts that provide education on the basics of computer and internet use would be helpful, especially as it relates to looking for job opportunities. Also help in identifying potential transportation solutions would be beneficial.

Social Services, Education, Health

Questions asked by Justine Allen, Events & Program Coordinator

Overall, what role did school districts play in supporting social service needs of students during COVID-19?

School districts provided meals, either by bus at schools and other drop off points, or by direct delivery to homes. School districts provided wi-fi hot spots for downloading of e-learning materials at schools and other central locations.

Schools made guidance counselors available, but not being able to spend time in person with students is expected to take a toll, as this is how concerns generally arise to be addressed.

Union Reads (Union High School program) is partnering with SCC on virtual parent literacy classes, including financial literacy.

What were some of the challenges faced by colleges/universities?

Some students were unable to travel to their home state or country when the schools closed, so they were accommodated with housing and meals, either on campus or with families.

There are concerns about students being part of the local workforce and consumer economy. Many students are unable to work due to closures and unable to access stimulus funds because they are still dependents.

Lander University’s Foundation started a crisis fund. Students apply for a max of $300 in vouchers for rent, utilities, transportation, gas. They will continue to raise money for the fund.

Financial Aid offices working with students who are struggling.

Were there any best practice examples of communities coming together to support community needs?

  • Covid for All in Cherokee started by several organizations working together in Cherokee.
  • United Way partnered with YMCA in Greenwood to expand food program.
  • Lakelands YMCA working with Laurens District 55 on a summer reading program and other initiatives tbd.
  • SC Empowerment distributes food boxes in Laurens neighborhoods.
  • Salvation Army in Pickens County assisting with funding, childcare, working with United Way.
  • Meals to You (Baylor program) extended outreach to SC during school year.

What are some of the ongoing challenges, especially related to keeping people in their homes amid increased unemployment?

Initially food shortages were an issue. Now more assistance is being requested with mortgages, rent, and utility payments. Will funds be available moving forward?

Did communities provide specific programs to support seniors?

Through United Way and other organizations, counties provided some sort of meal assistance through access points and home delivery. Computer literacy is an issue so resources available have not always been accessed. Many food vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables have not been requested so the assumption is that people do not know about them or are afraid to go out to pick them up. Some agencies put vouchers online for safely, but this posed a challenge because some seniors do not use or know how to use technology to find or access the vouchers.

How to reach seniors without using smartphones and internet?

Have any groups fallen through the cracks?

The only group identified was students of higher education.

What are some of the challenges, potential collaborative opportunities moving forward?

ChallengePotential Collaborative Opportunity
Dissemination of informationCounties get together to develop best practices for information distribution, including in times of disaster (no power)

 

Lack of internet access and affordabilityCounties get together to develop plan, lobby state/fed, and implement universal installation and affordability of broadband
Childcare
Seniors and technologyScale up training for seniors—e.g.,coordinate getting appropriate people in the counties together and train their people so their people can train seniors.

Just Call Bill mentioned as a resource

Andrea Smith at Senior Action also mentioned her staff doing lots of over the phone assistance.

Transportation – getting to jobs, getting to schools to get meals and wi-fi, seniors getting to food access pointsMobility Alliance

 

Next Steps & Future Opportunities

In general, the listening tour input reinforced that a number of the areas in which Ten at the Top has been focusing collaborative efforts including mobility & transportation, entrepreneur support and senior needs remain relevant during the current crisis.

Access to internet & broadband technology was also a major focus and while Ten at the Top will certainly support the continued expansion of availability across the region, that issue seems to have been identified as a state-wide issue that the state legislature will be focusing to address.

Below are some of the specific follow-up actions that TATT will be taking in the coming weeks to support some of the issues identified during the listening tour:

  • Rural Mobility Listening Session: The Upstate Mobility Alliance’s Moving People Task Force will be holding a special virtual listening session on July 13th with representatives from rural communities to better learn about specific mobility & transportation challenges in the non-urban areas within the Upstate. Following this session, the committee will develop a strategy for how to move forward in supporting greater access to transportation in the rural areas within the Upstate.
  • Entrepreneur & Small Business Webinar Series: To help address some of the specific challenges identified by entrepreneurs & small businesses, TATT’s Upstate Entrepreneur Ecosystem group will be holding a series of webinars with subject experts that will be available for viewing by small business owners & entrepreneurs. In addition, the group will continue to focus on “connecting the disconnected” with resources to help start and grow businesses in the Upstate.
  • Senior Needs Workshops: Due to COVID-19, TATT has been unable to hold in-person Senior Needs Workshops through the first half of 2020. Beginning in August, we intend to hold virtual workshops to continue to connect senior service providers and to especially understand how to support their needs during the current pandemic.

In addition to these three specific efforts, TATT will continue to look for opportunities to support communities across the Upstate in other areas that are impacted by the pandemic and corresponding economic crisis.

Continued Upstate Growth Presents Challenges and Creates Opportunities

Continued Upstate Growth Presents Challenges and Creates Opportunities

By Dean Hybl, Executive Director, Ten at the Top

Given that the population for the Upstate region is projected to reach 1.75 million by 2040, it is not surprising that the recently released Census Bureau population estimate showed that the Upstate added nearly 20,000 new residents between July 2017 and July 2018.

There are certainly some who will read those numbers and suggest it is just further confirmation that we are growing too fast and need to shut the doors to make sure we maintain the quality of life for those already living here.

As someone who has lived in and studied regions struggling with declining population and economic crisis, it is my opinion that the great community vibrancy and strong economy here in the Upstate is directly tied to the fact that we are a region where people want to move and stay, thus resulting in consistent population growth over the last half century.

Changing policies to specifically discourage population growth would likely have unintended consequences that could directly contribute to a decline in economic viability and quality of life while likely having limited actual impact on the total population numbers for the region.

Instead of focusing on potential policies that could hamper positive growth, for more than a decade, leaders from across the Upstate have been promoting and encouraging efforts that embrace the Upstate as a vibrant and growing region—one that supports policies, investments and practices that help us shape future growth, instead of being shaped by it.

We are at a key juncture in the future of the Upstate. The increase in traffic congestion and land being used for development in many of our counties is now noticeable and starting to impact daily life and decisions across the region.

Fortunately, there are a number of opportunities for the Upstate today to significantly impact our future growth, without trying to limit the number of new residents within our communities.

How We Move People and Goods

Much of the discussion over the last decade in the Upstate and all of South Carolina around transportation has been focused on our deteriorating roads and bridges. The investment in improving our roads that was approved by our state legislators in 2017 was a key milestone, but was only one of many steps that must be taken if we want to efficiently and affordably move people and goods across the state for years to come.

Many local communities in South Carolina, but none in the Upstate, are enhancing their road maintenance and improvements with local financial support. Providing local funding is one way communities can ensure the most utilized roads within their community are able to keep up with traffic demand while remaining safe.

In the Upstate, 94% of people get to their daily job by using a personal vehicle. While we will likely never be able to create public transportation systems that can be used by everyone, just providing alternative transportation methods that reduce the number of people in the region who get to jobs using a personal vehicle to 85 or 90% would have a dramatic improvement on our roadways.

Providing Your Voice on Comprehensive Plans

The South Carolina statutes call for cities and counties to create and revise a comprehensive growth plan every ten years. These plans are designed to serve as a guide for communities to make decisions around appropriate growth within their community. Many of our communities are currently in the process of updating their plans.

Almost all elected officials regularly say that they make their decisions based on the input they receive from their constituents. One key element of the comprehensive plans is community input. If you have questions, concerns or ideas about how your community should try to shape local growth over the next decade, participating in one of the many meetings being held in your community is a great opportunity to share your insight.

If you are interested in the comprehensive planning process within your local city or county, I encourage you to check their web site for upcoming meetings and updates throughout the planning process.

Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Nearly 90% of all workers in the United States and 95% in South Carolina work for businesses with 20 or fewer employees. Studies have also shown that being an entrepreneur or small business owner is one of the greatest ways for someone to advance their economic status and in many cases emerge from the historic cycle of poverty.

During a recent visit to the Upstate, Andy Stoll from the Kaufman Foundation said that the communities that will have the greatest overall economic success and stability are those that are able to create a culture where all potential entrepreneurs and small business owners are aware of and have access to what they need to be successful.

The Upstate region is fortunate to have a large number of entities that provide support for entrepreneurs and small business owners. There are many Upstate residents who have the potential to become small business owners, but are likely unaware of the resources available to them.  Continuing to develop and enhance connections between available resources and potential small business owners and entrepreneurs is another opportunity for our region to help support growth while building a strong economic foundation that gives everyone opportunity.

Ultimately, what future we leave for our children and grandchildren will be determined by local and regional priorities and investments. Rather than turning our backs on growth and suffering the consequences, if we can embrace the fact that we are a vibrant and growing region and continue to have public dialogue and support investments that shape that growth in a positive and sustainable manner, we can ensure that the Upstate remains a leading place to live, learn, do business and raise a family for generations to come.

 

You can learn more about Ten at the Top and how you can become involved in regional growth initiatives at www.tenatthetop.org.