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Last updated: Sun. Mar. 02, 2014 - 09:17 am EDT

Construction in county has bounced back

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Its living room walls bare to the studs and its original furnace boiler gone, the house on Trier Road is slowly being transformed.

Mike Byers has the look of a knowing fix-it man as he stands at the front-door threshold taking a break from lending a hand. “Updating” is the term he uses to describe his son Chad’s house, a ranch with a basement near Snider High School, itself undergoing a massive remodeling.

The small, yet significant, residential project, and the huge million-dollar school renovation are helping Allen County construction to grow since the recession ended in 2009.

The combined estimated value of commercial and residential building projects has increased 63 percent since 2010, according to Allen County Building Department figures. That’s $219 million more in construction last year than in 2010.

Taken separately, commercial construction has increased 90 percent, with costly renovation projects last year concentrated in the near northeast side of the city. Remodelings, additions and repairs – not new buildings – have driven the increase.

Meanwhile, residential construction has grown 39 percent. New homes accounted for most of the residential projects, which also include remodelings, additions and other construction. New buildings have made up a greater portion of residential construction as the economy has improved.

But the county is not back to its pre-recession heyday, when 1,900 new homes a year were being built. The county finished last year with 838 building permits for new homes, and David Fuller says that’s fine.

“We were overbuilding at that point, in my opinion,” said Fuller, the county’s building commissioner. “I think we’re getting close to the threshold that’s appropriate for new single-family homes for our area. We might be able to sustain 900 new homes without getting overstocked.”

Residential construction last year, as in other recent years, was concentrated in the northern part of the county, with considerable building also to the east and west sides of Fort Wayne.

High on the list are homes in the $600,000-to- $900,000 range.

But topping the list is an agricultural storage building estimated at $1.96 million in southwest Allen County in Pleasant Township. The permit is actually for two buildings to house 4,000 hogs each in a confined animal feeding operation, said Tammy Bradtmueller, whose husband James works the farm.

For building permit purposes, the project is considered residential, according to the building department.

The storage buildings have yet to be built, Bradtmueller said, with construction slated for “whenever the weather cooperates.”

Then there are smaller home projects such as the $28,000 Byers remodeling on Trier Road. But the total estimated value of those remodelings, additions and repairs has remained level since 2010. New homes drive the increase in residential building.

Today, homebuilders are being cautious, constructing speculative houses to gauge the economy, Fuller said.

“Everybody I’m talking to so far is very positive about the year to come,” he said. “Once we get through this winter weather I think we’ll start seeing a pretty good influx of new permits and new subdivisions starting to build out, and I would think we’ll be at least as good as last year if not better from everything I’m hearing.”

While residential construction has seen modest growth, commercial spending has increased dramatically since 2010. Back then, more money was being spent on residential buildings. In comparison, last year about $47 million more was spent on commercial projects than residential projects.

While it’s not unusual for building remodelings, additions and alterations to outpace new commercial construction, Fuller said the 96 percent increase in money spent on fixing existing buildings shows that owners were making do post recession.

Another sign is the fact that the number of permits issued the last few years did not decrease significantly, while construction value did, Fuller said.

Today job values have increased, while the number of permits issued has remained relatively level.

“That to us is a bigger indicator of how strong the market is, that people are investing dollars into the buildings,” Fuller said.

Of course, it helps that some schools and colleges are renovating or adding on, which might skew the numbers, he added. Permits for school projects totaling at least $59.3 million were issued last year, according to the building department.

Snider High School is second highest on the list at $23.5 million. School officials have said the full tab for the school’s rehab will be about $40 million. About half is dedicated to infrastructure including replacing the heating and cooling system and windows, restoring masonry, installing a new bus lane and adding underground storm water retention.

But topping the list of commercial projects last year was the renovation of Hooters restaurant at 920 Coliseum Blvd. E. into Physicians Urgent Care. That cost an estimated $35 million.

Commercial construction doesn’t come with the same caution Fuller offers on overbuilding homes.

“It’s more what the investment companies are willing to make based on how they feel about how the economy is going overall,” he said. “And they tend to build buildings when things are going well and they tend to make their old buildings last when things are going slow. So I think we are seeing that recovery continuing. And that’s one of those things that the more we spend the better.”

Back on Trier Road, Mike Byers describes ripping off dark paneling in the living room and finishing the basement while his son finishes his doctoral degree in computer science this spring. Son Chad will take over this summer while he lives and works in the 50-year-old house he’ll call home.

Mike Byers, 66 and retired, plans to continue helping, he jokes, at least “until golf season hits.”

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