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VOL. 6 | NO. 42 | Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hanging Around

Engineering firms take on smaller projects to stay afloat

By Amos Maki

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The Pickering Firm Inc. is the architect and engineer of record for Nike’s massive, 1.7 million-square-foot facility expansion in Frayser.

The Nike distribution center in Frayser is one of the few large engineering projects happening. To cope with fewer large-scale jobs, firms are looking to relatively smaller ones to stay afloat while the economy continues to recover.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The $301 million project, now under construction, includes the expansion of Nike’s existing 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center and a new 120,000-square-foot Class A office building.

The Nike project came after Pickering provided grading, drainage, utilities and railroad design services for another huge project, Mitsubishi Electric Power Product Inc.’s 350,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

But fewer and fewer mega projects like those are happening in town, while other major projects have been put on hold due to economic concerns, leading large engineering firms to work on relatively smaller projects.

“We are coming down off some very big jobs,” said Mike Pohlman, president and CEO of Pickering. “There really aren’t the big jobs out there so we have to fill in some gaps. You just have to hang around. The key is to be able to hang around long enough.”

Pohlman and other engineering professionals said uncertainty over the economy is causing businesses and government divisions to shelve major projects. The firms will hear about a project one day and begin to explore it, only to hear a few days later that the project has been put on hold.

“I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I’ve never really seen anything like it,” Pohlman said. “Things are hot and all of a sudden they go cold. I can deal with the good times and I can deal with the bad times, but it is up and down daily and weekly.”

Frank Gianotti of the engineering and consulting firm Tetra Tech Inc. said he has watched as the number of large projects – such as planning and design work on Interstate 69 in West Tennessee, which Tetra Tech was handling – have been pulled back.

“We have had a lot of that and that trend is getting worse,” Gianotti said. “That’s a trend I don’t see going away and the impact of that to me is definitely bad for the economy, the short-term and long-term economy, of Memphis.”

Gianotti and Pohlman said they have focused on increasing the volume of relatively smaller projects.

“The money doesn’t seem to be there for the mega projects, but if you’ve got enough medium-size projects you’ll be fine,” Gianotti said.

Gianotti and David Bradford, senior principal with SSR Engineers, said the majority of the work they are doing these days is on enhancements or modifications to existing structures.

“We’re seeing a lot of the same,” Bradford said. “Most of the projects we’ve been going after are the $3 million to $5 million projects.”

Working on the smaller projects – whether it involves trusted clients or a rising new trend – has its own reward. While some of the projects Pickering and Tetra Tech are working on now may be smaller in size and scale, they will have a large local impact.

Pickering continues to work with longtime clients like Kroger, FedEx and Wright Medical, among others.

“Our mainstays of the world, at least they’re doing something,” Pohlman said.

The work with Kroger, which plans to invest tens of millions of dollars at its Mid-South area stores over the next few years, involves new store creations and remodeling efforts, including the new Union Avenue store.

Pickering has been working closely with Midtown stakeholders on the store’s design, hosting multiple public meetings and tweaking the 51,000-square-foot store’s layout and appearance.

“It may not be the biggest thing we’re working on but it’s important,” Pohlman said. “That’s a real interesting job and it’s been well-received.”

Gianotti and Tetra Tech have begun to hitch their wagon to the rapidly growing demand for health-centered, quality of life projects like bike and walking paths.

Tetra Tech was the prime design consultant for the Shelby Farms Greenline, the wildly popular trail that runs from Tillman Street in Midtown to Shelby Farms Park.

Tetra Tech and local planners are now designing the extension of the Greenline from Farm Road to the Cordova train station.

“People are really interested in it,” Gianotti said. “I could speak to a group a week about it, and I see the trend moving more toward that kind of project.

“That kind of program, focused on health and quality of life, that’s been really positive and I hope we see more of it. For the small amount of money these things cost the end result is huge and people just rave about it.”

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