One day, Balfour Park will be a recreation oasis along bustling Sprague Avenue, with basketball courts, a splash pad, an amphitheater and more.
Spokane Valley wants to turn an underutilized, 5.6-acre lot across from City Hall into an expanded, $7 million park within the next few years, adding to the small park already there. The city was ready to spend $3 million this summer to complete part one of the two-phase project.
But even though the Valley was willing to pay, only three contractors were interested in the job – and not for $3 million.
“There are no contractors available to do the work,” Spokane Valley City Manager John Hohman told the City Council last month. “They are unavailable and are booked up throughout the entire construction season.”
The low bid for phase one came in at $5 million. Rather than go dramatically over budget and accept the 67% price increase, the city is regrouping and holding off on construction until next year at the earliest.
“We would not be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money if we moved forward with this at this time,” Spokane Valley City Councilman Tim Hattenburg said.
Balfour Park is a victim of the region’s building backlog.
In normal times, a project that big would generate lots of interest among contractors. But today, builders are so busy they mostly didn’t bother to bid.
“We’re at record pace right now,” said concrete contractor Brian Winkler, owner of WM. Winkler Co. “There’s more demand than there is supply for sure.”
Spokane Valley finds itself in a difficult construction market for a few reasons, but City Councilman Rod Higgins summed it up best.
“You’ve got prices going through the roof, you’ve got shortages of supplies, you’ve got a shortage of workers – a perfect storm,” Higgins said in an interview.
In addition to general inflation, prices for specific construction essentials, such as steel and cement, have soared. Supply chain disruptions have made some materials scarce, too.
David Minick, owner of Dewdrop Sprinklers and Landscaping, said the plastic piping he needs for irrigation systems has gotten far more expensive. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and Menick said plastic prices have generally mirrored the world’s rising gasoline costs.
Builders are also booked because construction put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic is finally moving forward. Cheryl Stewart, executive director of the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors, said that’s especially true of state-level projects.
But of all the factors causing contractors headaches, the labor shortage might be the most significant.
“We just don’t have enough people across the board to man the crews,” Stewart said.
Winkler said he has to balance taking on more projects against the well-being of his employees.
“We always want to do a good job and have a good quality of life for all our people,” he said. “We don’t want to work them to death.”
Minick said he’s decided not to bid on several major projects this year because he’s running his business with skeleton crews.
Under ideal circumstances, Minick said each of his six crews would have four to six workers. Right now, each has three.
“I’m understaffed, so it’s taking me longer to do a job,” he said, adding that he “really wanted” to work on Balfour Park. “I just can’t get the work done that’s out there, which is kind of sad. There’s all this work out there right now and I have to tell them no.”
Next year, Spokane Valley plans to put phase one out to bid earlier. City officials say they hope bidding sooner in the year will ensure contractors still have room in their schedules to take on the work.
In addition to trying to find more bidders, the city plans to streamline the project in an effort to reduce costs.
Higgins said stepping back and reassessing is the smart move.
“A park right now is not something that is an absolute must, a necessity,” he said.
City Councilwoman Laura Padden said in an interview she was disappointed to see the high bids for phase one and added that she doesn’t want to see the city scale back the proposal too much.
But she emphasized that the expanded Balfour Park will be a boon for the community when it is built. It’s in a great location, easily accessible and highly visible on Sprague Avenue, she said.
“We’re committed to Balfour Park,” she said. “It’s just going to take longer than we had hoped.”