Lack of work forces Dawson construction company to export labour

Last January, John Mitchell was worried. The manager of Han Construction was planning at least $4 million worth of construction projects in Dawson…

Last January, John Mitchell was worried.

The manager of Han Construction was planning at least $4 million worth of construction projects in Dawson City for 2005, and didn’t know where he was going to find the labour to complete the work.

Mitchell needed skilled employees to build a new daycare for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, an interpretive centre in Tombstone Park and a new Yukon government administration building.

The proposed bridge and new medical centre, as well as continued construction of Dawson’s visual arts school and the Westmark Hotel, would have swallowed up any extra available workers.

“I’ve never seen a season shape up like this one,” said Mitchell.

Fast forward to December 2005 and Mitchell was singing a different tune.

Han Construction has been forced to export supervisors to Pelly Crossing, Carmacks and Carcross to fulfill building contracts in other communities.

None of the proposed construction projects Han was contracted to build moved forward in 2005.

“One by one every one of those dropped off the screen,” Mitchell said recently.

“The indication we were given both on the daycare and on the office building, that they were so much of a sure thing that we went in last fall and actually laid the foundation and did the dirt work on both sites so we could start in March.

“For once in our construction life we figured we were ahead of the game, and it came to absolutely nothing.”

So what happened?

The bridge project is a bust because of a lack of political will and an underestimated budget.

The proposed medical centre also has moved no closer to completion.

“It evolved on its own with ties to Watson Lake,” said Mitchell.

“They were trying to boiler-plate a design down there that they could reuse up here. It never went at all.”

The First Nation delayed construction of the daycare for a year because it is searching for $1 million in money from Ottawa to build it.

“The decision was made to take the winter off. The construction will be delayed until spring to see if the First Nation can get some of the (federal funding),” he said.

The proposed government building has been buried in bureaucracy because of budgeting and design issues, he said.

“The evaluated costs for that project came in way over what the estimated project budget was.”

The government failed to take into account a higher cost of living and cost of materials in Dawson compared to Whitehorse when it budgeted for the building, he said.

Also, the bids for the mechanical systems received from three Outside companies were more than double the $250,000 originally budgeted for the building.

That’s because of a hot construction market right across Western Canada, said Mitchell.

“There is so much work going on in Whitehorse that if a subcontractor is going to come out to the communities, they are going to want it to be worth their while a little bit more.”

Exploding material costs may soon put this project — now estimated to cost $2 million — out of reach.

“A year ago I would have said it is 15 per cent less than that. The price is changing so fast it is difficult for us.”

The cost of Gyprock and steel is anticipated to jump another 15 per cent in January, and quotes from southern suppliers are only good for up to 30 days, he said.

“That’s pretty hard when you are trying to plan something that’s half a year away.”

A scaled-down design is now being negotiated between the Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s business corporation and the government.

“Right now, (chief Darren Taylor) is still talking with YTG to see if we can get the project we started.”

Design changes have also hampered the Tombstone interpretive centre, which would be built on First Nation land within Tombstone Park boundaries.

The government performed the original project design, then passed it over to the Tr’ondek Hwech’in for completion.

“It was a low-impact building, looking at recycling the wastewater, recycling the batteries, solar power and so on,” said Mitchell.

“When the First Nation inherited that, they proceeded on those specs. As it turned out, we even went a little greener because that seemed to be the catch phrase.”

The government decided against an environmentally-friendly structure after the First Nation had completed the design.

“The government came back and said, ‘We really don’t want that. We want a regular house with a diesel generator running it,’” said Mitchell.

“Even though we were proceeding on their specifications, they got all changed around.”

So the project has gone back to a design team, though Mitchell is optimistic it will be built next year.

“Our indications are that the government has finally decided the time has come.”