State data center work has far-reaching effects

A new state agency headquarters building and data center are beginning to rise from a pit just east of the Capitol, and everything about the emerging project seems large.

More than a quarter-million yards of soil have been excavated to provide a foundation for the $255 million complex, which eventually will provide 394,000 square feet of usable space. Two giant cranes sweep over the 8-acre site, one with a boom 250 feet high that seems to lord over the historic neighborhood next door.

Besides the physical size, commotion and glaring floodlights that sometimes irk neighbors, the Department of Information Services project also has a pretty big footprint in the local economy.

The six-story office complex will include an underground garage and two-story data center. It is giving hope to tradesmen who began to lose faith, and even risked losing their homes, during the prolonged economic downturn.

“I was out of work for about seven months before I got my job here,” said Travis Proefrock, an electrician who lives in Federal Way and said he doesn’t mind the roughly 45-mile trip to Olympia each morning. “It’s well worth it, compared to losing my home. It got to that point. I was looking at foreclosing on my home, and probably losing a car. ... It’s really bad all over.”

The Department of Information Services estimates that there will be 1,200 temporary jobs created over the life of the project. Work is expected to end in September 2011, when DIS moves in.

Paul Snorsky, senior project manager for contractor Howard S. Wright Constructors, said there are about 125 people employed as part of construction and that the work force should peak at about 250 on the site at any time in the latter half of 2010 and the first months of 2011.

“It’s the only ball game in town. It seems like everybody should take a turn at it. There just aren’t enough jobs to go around for everybody,” said Tammy Barrick, office manager and dispatcher for Carpenters Local 1148 in Olympia, which has sent a half-dozen workers each month to the site since early fall. Workers are coming from Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Longview, Kelso and Aberdeen, as well as a few from Thurston County, she said.

Other than the new Olympia City Hall project, there isn’t a lot of big commercial construction going on.

“So many of these carpenters have been on the out-of-work list so long, they’ve lost their medical coverage. There is no chance of getting that hooked back up until they get their hours back up. Some have not even had enough working hours to claim that as a work year toward their retirement,” Barrick said.

Joseph Curl, an Olympia-based carpenter who stood in a dirt trench clipping wires on wall forms, said he hadn’t worked all year until he got the call to start work at the end of October.

“I’ve been at it 20 years. I’ve never seen it like this,” he said of the construction lull.

Faron Butler, a flagger from Elma, said he was out of work for nine months. His health insurance had lapsed, requiring the state to pick up some costs of his 13-year-old daughter’s cancer treatments.

The job has come at a good time, Butler said; he called it good so far, despite the cold mornings.

Dave Johnson, the executive secretary for the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, said he hasn’t seen such widespread unemployment in 20 years, and he speculated that it might be worse than in the downturn of the 1980s.

“We’re seeing 30 to 35 percent, on average,” he said of jobless rates in the various trades, and some crafts are about 50 percent.

Dave Wallace, an economist with the state Employment Security Department, said construction is the hardest-hit economic sector in the state, seeing a loss of 38,000 jobs in the year ending Nov. 30.

The next-worst was manufacturing, which lost 28,000 jobs in aerospace, boat-building, food processing and timber-related activities.

Of the 153,881 people drawing unemployment benefits, about 30,332 were in the construction and extraction occupations in November, ESD data showed. And 1,239 of the November beneficiaries in “construction and extraction” came from Thurston County, Wallace said.

The bad conditions are giving Howard S. Wright Constructors a pick of the litter of workers available, and the company is able to put in requests for workers it knows and has liked in the past, said Jose Vila, a project manager.

“We’re crewing up now,” Vila said, adding that “this is a long project, and we’ll have laborers for quite a while.”

The project appears to be proceeding without incident, and both Snorsky and Cindy Edens with the Seattle-based developer Wright Runstad said there had not been glitches in construction. A sign near the job trailers also boasted that 131 days had gone by without a reportable incident causing a time-loss injury and a trip to a doctor.

For some workers on site, the data-center jobs provide a fringe benefit or two – such as the fabulous view that crane operator Dean Stoneburner takes in. Early this week, the 30-year-old from Enumclaw sat 250 feet in the air with a big glass window spread out in front of his feet.

He maneuvered the long metal boom around to hoist, then set down large wooden and metal forms that were being deployed below to shape the concrete foundation walls.

Stoneburner had stashed his wallet and a little canister of smokeless tobacco on a shelf to one side, and he’d pulled off his boots to work in his socks. It’s all part of a work ritual he learned from a mentor, who once told him: “You’ve got to get comfortable. If you’re tense, you’re not going to get good hooks.”

So far, so good, Stoneburner said.

“It’s really been a good job so far,” he said. “Everything’s gone like clockwork.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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