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New Orleans Picks Up

Construction Contractor, New in Town, Stays Busy

October 30, 2005|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — In a sparsely furnished storefront office about a mile from New Orleans' central business district, William Martt, president of Brigadier Construction Services, was simultaneously working the phone and the computer on a recent weekday morning, surrounded by whiteboards that were filling up with cryptic notations about the progress of the various projects his year-old firm had undertaken.

One board contained nothing but acronyms representing the company's customers: VA, USN, USACE, FBI, USAF, USPS, CG -- mainly branches of the federal government, particularly the Department of Defense.

As Martt worked, he riffled through printouts describing potential jobs. Examining project descriptions and preparing bids has been keeping him on the job from dawn to midnight some days.

"This one is from the Army Corps of Engineers, for debris removal from canals in St. Bernard Parish," he said, holding up a small stack of paper.

Parts of the parish were still inaccessible, but preparing a bid required sending engineers for a firsthand look.

"They want it priced and back to them by the close of business tomorrow," Martt said.

With construction poised to overtake tourism as New Orleans' No. 1 industry, firms such as Brigadier are flocking into town and executives like Martt -- officially an Ohioan two months ago -- are finding themselves residents of the Crescent City, possibly for years to come.

A year-old start-up company spawned by a group of Cleveland contracting firms, Brigadier is minority-owned and disabled-veteran-owned, giving it an advantage in obtaining certain types of government contracts.

The company's doorway into the post-Katrina recovery is a "multiple-award task order contract" with the Air Force Reserve in Ohio. According to Martt, it's basically a retainer under which the firm stands ready for a wide range of assignments -- anything from repairing a damaged Coast Guard station to clearing debris. It is focusing on contracts in the $5-million to $15-million range.

Brigadier's response to the local worker shortage has been decidedly ad hoc. Martt has a staff of 20, but must recruit from outside for big jobs. Early on, he teamed with a local roofing company and an environmental firm.

Then he got lucky.

At a meeting of the black legislative caucus in Baton Rouge, one of Martt's fellow executives met a building contractor from New Orleans' hard-hit Ninth Ward.

The man's heavy equipment had been destroyed in the flood, but what he still had was even more valuable: a list of experienced local construction workers. Brigadier brought the contractor on board as an affiliate.

Martt, 47, a civil engineer, has worked in challenging environments before. He is a veteran of hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, as well as of Bosnia and Iraq.

One way of gauging the progress of natural-disaster recovery is through the "three passes" typically made by heavy debris-removal crews, Martt said.

The first pass is to clear downed trees and other vegetation. The second is to collect the remains of bulldozed homes and commercial buildings. The third and final pass is for debris left over from new construction.

New Orleans is stuck between the first and second passes, Martt said, as officials debate whether entire neighborhoods must be razed or whether efforts should be made to salvage homes that were flooded to the ground-floor ceilings. After previous disasters, people wanted their homes knocked down as quickly as possible.

"New Orleans," Martt noted, "is different."

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