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Camp Pendleton generates jobs for San Diego building industry

Though commercial projects in the region have stalled and foreclosures proliferate, Pendleton is bustling with new construction. The stimulus package could mean even more military building jobs.

February 14, 2009|Peter Pae

CAMP PENDLETON — Like many casualties of the housing collapse, Adam and Kimberley Roche had a horrible 2008 as their window installation business, which once had 50 workers, ran out of projects.

By November they had no money, no employees and no banks that would lend them a hand. "We had absolutely no work for six months," said Adam Roche. "That was a scary place to be."

But just days before the Valley Center couple had planned to walk away from their San Diego-area business, they got a call that has reversed their fortunes.

In a glimpse of the potential promise of the massive economic stimulus plan that President Obama plans to sign Monday, Roche is now installing windows for new Marine barracks here and recently rehired several workers.

"Timing was excellent," Adam Roche said. In recent months, the Roches' company, Armor Contract Glazing Inc., has been able to rehire two employees and add five more to the payroll. It's eyeing three additional projects at Camp Pendleton and several more at other military bases. "It's not like the housing boom, but it's giving us steady growth."

The Roches' employees are among more than 2,500 local construction workers who have invaded the sprawling base since last fall, kicking off what is expected to be one of Camp Pendleton's largest reconstruction efforts since the Vietnam War.

Situated south of Orange County, the base is home to 60,000 people, including 33,000 Marines and 3,000 Navy sailors. As one of the nation's largest, the base has 14 chapels, 11 fire stations and six child-care centers. It can take about 45 minutes to drive across the base, which is about half the size of Los Angeles.

The base is currently constructing five barracks and has plans for spending $2.7 billion to build 64 facilities, including 19 barracks next year alone. Nearly 1,000 new homes are also planned for Marine families. In all, the projects could entail at least 10,000 construction jobs over the next two to three years.

"There is a lot of construction going on, but there will be more," said Navy Cmdr. Marshall T. Sykes, who is overseeing housing and other facilities projects at the base, spanning more than 200 square miles. "We have to catch up before we can build for growth."

With the military construction boom, the San Diego area, which was one of the first in the region to fall into a recession, could be the first to emerge from it, said Marney Cox, chief economist for the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

"It's the military to the rescue again," Cox said, noting how defense spending has been a significant economic driver for the area. "They've stimulated and sometimes depressed the economy. In this particular case, the timing is perfect. We're in a recession and their expenditure program is going to put a lot of people back to work here."

Many of the new barracks, designed to be more energy-efficient with modern features, would replace dilapidated buildings, many of them built in the 1960s. Additional barracks are being built to accommodate 5,000 Marines on top of the 33,000 already stationed here.

The spending spree came just in time for hundreds of contractors in the region, where a collapse in housing development has led to a loss of thousands of construction jobs. In California alone, the construction industry has shed more than 93,000 jobs since 2007.

The industry is hoping for more help from the stimulus package, which includes more than $10 billion for military construction and renovation that could, according to one Senate analysis, create or sustain 200,000 jobs nationwide.

The money would accelerate projects that are underway or have been planned for some time.

"It's as close as you'll get to shovel-ready," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, referring to calls for spending on projects that could begin immediately.

"The housing industry is desperate with all the slowdown, and you've got a lot of troops coming home, so the only way you'll be able to accommodate them is to build more military housing," he said. "You're going to fix them up in a couple of years anyway, so why not do it now?"

No specific military projects or potential project locations have been set under the stimulus package, mainly to avoid earmarking, in which members of Congress insert pet projects for funding.

But the funds would be a much-needed stimulus for the construction industry, which has an unemployment rate that is double the national average. The potential for spending billions of dollars on infrastructure and other public-works projects led Caterpillar Inc., the nation's largest construction equipment maker, to announce Thursday that it might curtail its planned job cutbacks.

At Camp Pendleton, the stimulus package could include the construction of a $700-million hospital that has been on the drawing board for years. That would be on top of construction already underway or slated to begin in the next year or two.

The bustling construction activity at the base is in stark contrast to adjacent residential neighborhoods, where foreclosure signs and half-built homes dot the landscape.

Harper Construction Co., a San Diego firm that specializes in military construction, said that a typical construction site at Camp Pendleton has about 180 workers. The base currently has more than 15 facilities in some state of construction, including five barracks.

"We've realized that this is where a lot of people will be making their living for the next several years," said Mike E. Firenze, a project manager for Harper.

"The commercial side has died off."

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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