2013 was a good year for most contractors in the United States, as nearly 60% of metros added construction jobs between January 2013 and January 2014. These estimates are just part of a recently released analysis of federal employment data compiled by the Associated General Contractors of America Association (AGC). Despite the estimates, many in the industry are still wary of a potential decline in 2014.
Ken Simonson, the chief economist of the organization, was encouraged by the increase in construction jobs, “despite the severe winter conditions in much of the country this January.” But, he cautioned the public to understand that, “the industry’s recovery has a long way to go with only a smattering of metro areas exceeding their previous peak January level of employment.”
Some of the greatest losses were felt in Gary, IN, an old Midwest steel town that sits just south of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. Walking through the streets, you would never guess that the city once housed close to 200,000 people, and was one of the greatest steel manufacturers in the United States for over 60 years. Now, Gary lies abandoned (6,500 of the 7,000 city-owned properties are abandoned). The steel factory only employs around 5,000 people, and the population is not getting any younger. Criminals and drug users now seek out the formerly occupied homes and businesses as places of refuge, because the city cannot monitor all of its properties, which has led to a proposition by the city to cut off city services to 40% of the city’s land and relocate residents to more viable parts of Gary.
With the city looking to down-size in 2013, approximately 4,400 construction jobs (or 25% of all construction jobs in Gary) were lost. The outlook may be bleak, but there may be some degree of hope for the struggling steel town. Located only an hour and a half from Chicago, and with a multitude of waterfront properties on Lake Michigan, Gary has some assets that could make it a compelling investment a few years down the road. The only way to take advantage of those assets comes from greater access to public transportation, in this case a railway that will represent a significant investment for the city of Gary that could pay dividends in the future.
Karen Freeman-Wilson, the city mayor, is planning on asking the City Council to appropriate 20% of the city’s county economic development income tax toward the expansion of the South Shore railway. The extension of the line will bring in construction jobs, decrease the commute time from Gary to downtown Chicago, and could potentially increase both Gary’s population and property value within the city.
Roadways, railways, and other public transportation projects have been the backbone of economic growth since the 1930s, and it has been construction workers and contractors who have seen that work through. There are plenty of cities in the United States that have stories similar to Gary, stories that could be a lot happier if there were greater investment in public projects in the future. In order to reach that better future, we will need to build it first.