Work on high school project elusive for some local contractors

The general contractor for the new Vashon High School — scheduled to break ground next week — projects that about $2.2 million worth of construction work could go to Vashon vendors and sub-contractors.

The figure is 7 percent of the maximum amount the district can spend on construction and includes renovation work to be completed this summer at the school district offices.

But as Skanska, the district’s general contractor, is part-way through the bidding process, some local contractors are expressing frustration over their inability to get work on the project after school district officials said they’d try to give them opportunities. According to Skanska’s estimates, less than a quarter of the $2.2 million estimated to stay on Vashon is expected to go to local contractors; the rest will likely be used to purchase local materials and supplies.

“I don’t hear anyone excited about it,” said Doug Hoffmann, a well-known Vashon excavator who has heard complaints about the high school project.

Mike Kimmel, a water main contractor, said he pursued work on the project but wasn’t able to obtain the large bond that would have been required. Kimmel said he attended an informational meeting where other contractors expressed similar frustrations, and he feels the district didn’t follow through on its promise to try to give work to locals.

“They pumped it up real good and nothing came of it,” he said.

Eric Gill, the school district’s capital projects manager, said that he and Skanska officials have been transparent from the beginning about the barriers that local contractors hoping to bid on the project would face.

State law requires that many of the contractors involved in the project take out large bonds, join a union and pay workers prevailing wages. Aside from the state requirements, Gill said, the project’s large size and the need to complete much of the work quickly over the summer make it better suited to large, off-Island contractors.

“It’s a balancing act between the demand the district has placed on the contractor and the district’s desire to involve local contractors,” Gill said. “I’ve always said the district would … work hard to provide the opportunities, but we couldn’t guarantee local participation.”

In January the school district hired Islander Oly Jensen to act as a liaison between the district and local contractors and vendors, most of whom are used to residential work. Jensen, whom the district said could be compensated up to $10,000 for his efforts, has given local businesses information on the project requirements and guided them through the bidding process.

In addition, the school district worked with Skanska officials to determine small portions of labor and materials that would be more accessible to local businesses and held several meetings for contractors to get more information.

“I would be willing to bet that, to me, this ownership team and the design team and contract team have probably done more to encourage local participation than any other local agency,” Gill said.

Of the $2.2 million estimate, Gill said, more than $600,000 is already close to being awarded to locals. For example, when the school district offices at Chautauqua Elementary School are renovated this summer, Islanders will likely provide $12,000 in casework, or counter and cabinetry construction, and $15,000 in excavation work, according to Skanska estimates.

Gill added that the projections don’t include additional work the district expects to give to locals involving mechanical work at the high school and timber harvesting on the district campus.

“Given all the hoops of a public contract, I think we’re doing fantastic,” Gill said. “My hat is off to the team for really pursuing this and trying to make it happen, and I’m pleased with the direction we’re going.”

Bob Hennessey, a school board member who has supported local participation in the high school project, said he was happy with Skanska’s projections, which were presented at the most recent school board meeting.

“If we could put $2 million of this project cost into our local businesses, yes, it would be a very good thing,” he said.

However, he added, he was hesitant to bank on the numbers until the contracts were awarded. “The proof is going to be in the pudding,” he said.

Hoffmann, the excavator, said he would likely get to work on the project, but he’d heard complaints from other contractors who couldn’t.

“Most say, ‘We’re screwed. We’re not going to have hardly any work,’” he said.

Hoffmann, however, said he was impressed by Skanska and the school district’s efforts to reach out to Island contractors.

“I believe Skanska is trying and the school district is trying, but they kind of have their hands tied right now,” he said.

Other contractors reached by The Beachcomber seemed indifferent about the barriers that deterred them from bidding on the project. They spoke highly of the Skanska and school district officials they dealt with but said it simply wasn’t worth it for them to try to bid.

Ed Palmer, a general contractor, said he considered getting involved but would need more employees to complete work in the project’s tight time frame. Plus, he said, his company doesn’t usually go for work where many other contractors are also bidding.

“I could have pursued it and gone after some of the work. We decided it wasn’t something we need and could possibly be more work than it’s worth,” he said.

Corey McIntyre, a general contractor who builds homes, said he too attended the informational meetings but didn’t pursue work for similar reasons. “I’m fortunately one of a few who are getting busy at the moment,” he added.

Jensen, the local contractor and vendor liaison, said some contractors have opted not to bid after learning more about the project, but said he couldn’t speak as to their reasons why.

“As a longtime private businessperson, many things reflect whether you want to get involved in a project, (such as) where you are, how much time you have available,” he said.

Palmer, who also builds mostly homes, said he personally has no qualms with the school district.

“I think they did go out of their way to try to include us,” he said, “and there are some things that are out of their hands by law.”

Kevin Linnell, general manger at True Value, said there are fewer barriers in public works projects for materials providers and is hopeful Skanska will turn to the store for some of its purchases. The contractor has been good to work with so far, he said, but much is still up in the air as to who will be awarded contracts in the end.

“It behooves them to try to involve local businesses and contractors. … This is a small community,” he said.


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