N.C., out-of-state contractors scramble for stimulus money

Posted March 3, 2009 5:52 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:13 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina will get close to $1.4 billion in the federal stimulus package for highway and school construction projects, but that doesn't guarantee Tar Heel contractors will benefit.

State and local governments are trying to balance getting the best possible bid and helping North Carolina-based companies and their workers.

"So many of our contracts are going out of state, businesses are going out of state, jobs are going out of state," said Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth. "I don't know what legislatively or legally we can do to prevent that, but it doesn't (keep) me from expressing my concern."

For example, North Carolina State University picked an out-of-state design team for its planned James B. Hunt Library. The library, which will be built on the university's Centennial Campus, is expected to cost more than $100 million.

John Muter, vice president of Tarboro-based Barnhill Contracting Co., said contractors are scrambling to find work wherever they can. The collapse of the home-building industry has even pushed some residential builders into competing for commercial and state construction jobs, he said.

"I think you're seeing a lot of desperation out there," Muter said. "In the past, we might see six or seven bidders (on a project). Today, we're seeing 15 bidders."

As a member of the State Building Commission, Muter said he hears from local companies that lose projects to out-of-state bidders.

"When everybody's busy, you don't hear a lot about it. But today, we're hearing a lot of it because firms need work," he said.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said he doesn't think the state should try to meddle with competition for stimulus contracts.

"It doesn't help our people at all because other states retaliate," Stam said. "Secondly, government gets higher prices that way."

Out-of-state contractors usually hire local subcontractors, and Muter said blocking experienced builders from other states from bidding on North Carolina projects could have other consequences as well.

"My concern would be quality, schedule and even safety (problems)," he said.