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Vikings Stadium Could Help Minnesota's Sagging Construction Industry

Out-of-state Vikings fans might not know this, but Minnesota's all-too-brief summer is known for several fleeting, but memorable, things. Among them are: mosquitoes, out-door grilling, people (who really shouldn't) wearing shorts, and construction work. Mosquitoes, grills, and cellulite-revealing shorts may not alter dramatically with economic ups and downs, but the economic recession that has dogged the United States for the last few years, has hit the construction industry and all the industries dependent on the construction industry.

A May 19, 2011 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said that, while the unemployment rate in Minnesota fell .1% to 6.5% in April, "Minnesota's big jobs decline was mostly in construction, which lost 5,700 jobs for the month on a seasonally adjusted basis. It marked the second-highest loss in that sector on record." Some of that loss can be attributed to unseasonably cold weather in Minnesota this spring and some of it reflects the sluggish economic recovery.

Enter the Minnesota Vikings, an organization strongly lobbying to build a new stadium in Arden Hills. With construction on a new stadium currently projected to take three years to complete, if approved, the construction jobs the project creates could help Minnesota construction workers through an agonizingly slow economic recovery.

According to a story printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 28, 2011*, Zygi Wilf says that building a new Vikings stadium will create "13,000 jobs, including 7,000 construction jobs, more than 3,000 ongoing full- and part-time jobs."

Interview after the jump.

It isn't a secret that the construction industry has suffered in the economic downturn, but the industries that supply them have suffered too, another recession ripple effect. Demand for construction materials has plummeted as construction projects are scrapped or delayed while investors wait for the economy to rebound. The jobs in construction, and its related industries, a new Vikings stadium could create for such a sagging segment of the economy should be weighing on Minnesota legislators' minds as they decide whether to invest in an Arden Hills stadium.

Seeking to understand more about what a major construction project, like a Vikings stadium, could mean for Minnesota, I talked with my friend Ben Hallas. Ben works in St. Paul, Minnesota for Gerdau Ameristeel, the second largest minimill steel producer in North America. Gedau's St. Paul mini-mill sits just across the Mississippi from South St. Paul, using electric arc furnaces to recycle scrap into steel. Steel production falls into manufacturing not construction, so, on the face of it, there isn't a clear connection to construction. However, Gerdau produces steel bars and rebar, a great deal of which finds its way into construction projects thus creating a close relationship between this particular form of manufacturing and the construction industry.

Gerdau's steel has been used in the rebuilt 35W bridge in Minnesota and, more to our football interests, in the new Cowboys stadium. That's right, Gerdau supplied 670 tons of steel for the new Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas. So, even though he's not a construction worker, Ben has a unique perspective on what a winning bid to supply steel for a retractable-roof NFL stadium could mean for an industry that is so directly impacted by what happens in the construction industry.

SG: Because your plant is known for producing steel rebar some of the steel you produce ends up being used in construction projects. How has the slump in the construction industry affected your business?

BH: When October 2008 hit it brought our mill almost to a screeching halt. All of our vendors stopped buying and had to deplete their inventories. We went from a 24-hour operation with four crews down to two crews, laying-off 117 people all within a matter of months.

SG: Wow, so how many crews do you have working at the St. Paul mill now?

BH: Right now we are on a three-crew operation working Monday through Friday but in ten weeks we will be a four-crew, 24/7 operation. Everyone who was laid off will be back plus another 47 people. It looks like the cash for clunkers and rebates on appliances have really boosted the industry in certain areas and we're getting that overflow.

SG: Glad to hear things are beginning to look up. Could an increase in large construction projects around the state and country mean even more business for your company?

BH: A large construction project like, ohhh, let's just say a new stadium, and the infrastructure to support it, could mean an increase in business not only for us but for the vendors who sell our steel too. As an example we have 9000 tons of steel in the new 35W bridge so you can see that a large project that could take a projected three years to finish would bring us increased orders for those three years and possibly more jobs.

SG: Now, I know this is silly, but I have to ask-did you or anyone you work with bring in a witch doctor to work some voodoo on the 670 tons of steel destined for the new Cowboys stadium? Their 2010 season bore almost no resemblance to their 2009 season, so it makes a person...curious.

BH: I know, bleed purple, right? But that's just not good business practice :-) I think Jerry's engineers have messed that one up with the placement of the huge screen.

SG: Working on materials destined for the Cowboys stadium, did you end up having any run-ins with the always-memorable Jerry Jones?

BH: No run-ins with Jerry Jones, everything was ordered through vendors.

SG: What's it like to see the new 35W bridge or Cowboys stadium and to know that you played a part in helping to build it?

BH: When we're making the steel on a day-to-day basis you really don't think about it but when I see the Cowboys stadium or drive over the 35W bridge it kind of hits me like wow I had a hand in building that. It's cool to see the end projects and see the end uses of what we make on a day to day basis.

SG: What does your plant supplying materials for a massive construction project, like a stadium, mean for you?

BH: If our plant gets to supply the steel for the stadium and infrastructure that could mean an increase in business which also means more jobs are created and people are called back to work in this state that we live in and love. As long as we use local businesses to supply the products for a new stadium, it's a win-win for the Vikings and the state.

I'm going to cross my fingers and hope for that win-win scenario for the Minnesota Vikings and the state of Minnesota to become a reality. Special thanks to Ben Hallas, without his help all I would know about steelworkers would be what I'd learned from the movie The Full Monty.

*The report, "WILF: TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE" by Dave Orrick, is in the Pioneer Press archives, but not available to the general public, or some such stupidness. Fortunately, I kept the copy that landed on my doorstep back in May. Being a pack rat ain't all bad.