Construction crews ramp up in race to finish Liberty Center on time

Unlike other regional mixed-use developments such as downtown Cincinnati’s The Banks and Miami Twp.’s Austin Landing that are being built in smaller stages, Liberty Center will open more than 1 million-square-feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space at once by the end of the month.

As many as 15 to 20 structures, including parking garages, are being finished at the same time at Liberty Center, according to a directory map. And that’s just a single project occurring in a time period where commercial construction in Southwest Ohio has already seen an uptick in activity, said John Morris, president of Ohio Valley Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group representing about 350 area contractors including some companies that won Liberty Center business.

As a result, spare laborers are hard to find and more expensive to pay, Morris said.

Best guesses from developer Steiner + Associates are that the massive Butler County complex has more than 700 construction workers on site to finish paving roads, install tenant signage and do other finishes by Oct. 22, the center’s grand opening.

“It’s an extreme challenge due to the fact that construction overall in our region was already up and when you get a major project with concurrent timelines — namely there are as many as 75 general contractors — it puts a real strain on the industry,” Morris said.

Historic rainfall was a factor behind Liberty Center missing a targeted opening date of Oct. 8. Instead, the grand opening for most of the first-phase tenants was scheduled for Oct. 22. Anchor tenants Dillard’s department store and Dick’s Sporting Goods still opened for the 8th.

Subcontractor Kelley Brothers Roofing of Fairfield has temporarily pulled extra manpower from other projects and put three to four more workers at Liberty Center, said project manager Tim Henry. Now there are about 14 roofers in Liberty Twp.

“We are the roofing contractor for every building out there and all metal wall panels,” Henry said.

Liberty Center has a tight schedule but it’s not Kelley Brothers’ biggest order at the moment, Henry said. “Everybody in town’s working depending on who they’re working for. A lot of them are working for tenants.”

However, in a matter of weeks the heavy equipment and truck deliveries will be driving by Liberty Center for other job sites, said Chris Wunnenberg, director of development for Schumacher Dugan Construction Inc. of West Chester Twp.

“This was a major project that they basically announced an opening date on and everybody had to get everything done at one time,” Wunnenberg said. “This soon will pass.”

Liberty Center’s construction could have had an even bigger benefit for the local economy if there were a greater supply of local workers available, Morris, of Associated Builders, said.

More out-of-state labor was brought in to meet the schedule than the construction trade group would have liked, Morris said.

But Ohio’s construction industry employment has yet to recover the losses of the 2007-2009 economic downturn. Those workers that left the business found jobs elsewhere and have not been available to meet the needs of the area’s construction crunch, he said.

“We would have hoped that a project like Liberty Center would have had a tremendous impact on more work for folks in this region,” Morris said. “The reality is because of our workforce shortages and challenges we were not able to add a significant amount of jobs in the short-term.”

National tenants that arrived in Butler County to learn about the worker shortages weren’t always prepared to pay the higher wages, Morris said.

In some cases, Chad Day, executive secretary of Cincinnati Building Trades, believes companies relied on lower cost independent contractors instead of union members to meet their budgets. Building Trades represents various unions such as electricians and carpenters that work in the industry.

“I know there’s local people here that can do the work,” Day said.

Due to crews working feverishly to complete their work, Steiner + Associates was not able to comment more about construction activity, a spokeswoman said.

Liberty Center, located at the crossroads of Interstate 75, Ohio 129 and Liberty Way, is believed to be one of the largest developments in Butler County history. Estimates are for the center’s retailers, restaurants and other businesses to create approximately 3,500 new jobs by 2018, according to the township.

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