Written by Kevin Allenspach
SARTELL -The wind whistled through the open upper level of the SilverCrest Office Complex, giving several construction workers a reminder of the conditions you have to overcome to raise a Minnesota building in January.
Increasing commercial construction activity in Central Minnesota is restoring some warmth to the local economy, however. More than $182 million was spent on structures such as this two-story building last year in the six-city St. Cloud metro area, according to Times research of permit data. That's a jump of almost 62 percent from the $113 million spent in 2011, but not quite as much as the $200 million totaled in 2010.
Most of the value was in St. Cloud, including twin 66-unit apartment buildings with garages along Cypress Road, the final phase of the St. Cloud Hospital expansion and several high-profile projects at St. Cloud State University. St. Cloud commercial building permits totaled almost $133 million in 2012 -up 81 percent year-over-year but well shy of the $178 million spent in 2010.
The epicenter of nonresidential growth, however, is Sartell, where projects amounted to almost $24 million in 2012. That's more than 200 percent growth from 2011, double the activity from 2010, and almost equal the total from 2009 -when Walmart, Sam's Club, HealthPartners and St. Cloud Orthopedics all invested in new facilities before the grip of the Great Recession took hold.
"Sartell has a strong medical presence, and Highway 15 has become a major thoroughfare through the area," said Bob Strack, CEO of Strack Companies -which is developing the SilverCrest building on the west side of the road from Sam's Club. "Our company had a very good year in 2012. Of course, you're always a little cautious about whether it's indicative of a wide trend. You have to drill down because when you look at the totals, there could be some larger public projects that can skew the numbers."
Commercial construction figures, which include municipal buildings, schools, apartments, fire systems and signage, showed a decline year-over-year in Sauk Rapids, St. Augusta, St. Joseph and Waite Park. However, all of those cities added together represented less than 14 percent of area activity.
Any construction work is welcome, however, for an industry that shed 50,000 jobs in Minnesota during the recession. Projects such as the $44 million ISELF building at St. Cloud State University can make up some of that margin in a hurry.
Donlar Construction, which is in charge of the expansion of the National Hockey and Event Center, has experienced an increase directly attributable to state and university activity. Gary Traut, a project executive with Donlar, said the company has expanded beyond a traditional 60-mile radius to do business in college towns such as Mankato, Crookston and Bemidji -the last of which seeing so much business the firm has established a satellite office. During the summer, Traut's company employs as many as 150 people.
"You hope we're making some progress, because 2012 was better than 2010 and 2011," said Traut, who has 30 years of experience in commercial construction. "The downside is the competition got absolutely vicious as the market shrunk, and I don't think that has eased yet. Hopefully, it will as more projects that have been on the drawing board for two or three years finally get started."
An example of that is the new First United Methodist Church building on Pinecone Road in Sartell. Donlar is the general contractor on the project that is expected to exceed $3 million.
Between Highway 15, Pinecone Road and Stearns County Road 120, Sartell could be a hotbed for more commercial activity in the near future.
"We're starting to get more inquiries -not where we were at years ago but enough to make it exciting again," said Anita Rasmussen, planning and community development director for Sartell. "We're slowly emerging from this bedroom community to something more sustainable. You ask people from Sartell where they work anymore and the answers aren't always St. Cloud or some point distant."
Variety in projects
Commercial contractors also say there's been more variety in projects in the past year.
"I think we're seeing greater diversity," Strack said. "There have been increases in manufacturing that we haven't seen in three years. It hasn't been all office buildings and schools."
The $4 million SilverCrest, 137-23rd St. S, already has two tenants.
The College of St. Scholastica will move its St. Cloud campus here, including nursing programs that will be a natural fit with nearby HealthPartners Central Minnesota Clinics and the Sauk Prairie Medical Center -not to mention CentraCare Health Plaza.
The other tenant will be Resource Training &Solutions. Strack said it was important for both companies to have signage and name recognition along the busy road. The building will include four large classrooms that can be subdivided or opened into one on the first floor, along with a cafe that will face the highway through tall glass windows. There remains 7,000 square feet of office space to rent on the second floor. And a second phase is planned to construct a similar building to the east in the near future.
The first phase, which started in September and is expected to be open by late summer, is keeping a daily average of about 25 workers busy, according to Matt Strack, vice president and a fourth-generation member of his family to work for Strack Companies.
"There's always a lull when it gets cold this time of year, but I can foresee this area taking off," Matt Strack said. "Sartell's been a great city to work with. We just moved our own headquarters here. It's close to St. Cloud and a growing community."
Follow Kevin Allenspach on Twitter @kevinallenspach.