GRAND RAPIDS — In the case of the $160 million Studio Park project, it took a city to build one of the largest developments in the recent history of downtown Grand Rapids.
The new 62,500-square-foot entertainment complex at 123 Ionia Ave. SW celebrated its grand opening this month after a decade in planning and 17 months of construction. The opening was a big day for Grand Rapids-based Studio C, the parent company of Celebration Cinema that opened the nine-screen movie theater included in the development.
It also served as a big day for the multiple contractors that worked on the project alongside one another, a necessary step the developers took so the project could stick to an aggressive construction timeline.
“As we think about the spirit, the vision, it really took an entire city to bring this to fruition,” Jeff Olsen, founding partner of Olsen Loeks Development LLC, said during the grand opening. “It was a tremendously collaborative effort.”
Pioneer Construction Inc. and First Companies Inc., both based in Grand Rapids, served as general contractors and construction managers on the project, a unique approach that was necessary based on the magnitude of Studio Park, Olsen said. The two companies brought “a tremendous amount of expertise” to their parts of the development, he added.
Pioneer worked on the construction of the Canopy by Hilton hotel included in the development, as well as built the 960-space parking garage and nine-screen movie theater, said Chris Beckering, executive vice president for Pioneer.
First Companies tackled the five-story mixed-use buildings, as well as the outdoor piazza space. This included 106 apartments and first-floor retail spaces that are currently being built out for tenants, said Craig Schroeder, senior project manager with First Companies.
Over the course of the build-out, the construction companies worked in close coordination with and proximity to each other on the job site, something that was “pretty unique” to the Studio Park project, Schroeder said.
“It’s definitely not a thing that’s done regularly,” he said. “Occasionally, you’ll see joint ventures with companies. Overall, with the complexity of (Studio Park), I think it would be challenging to have one contractor handle all of the aspects of this site, especially with the simultaneous turnover of timeline.”
Meanwhile, a third local firm, Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. Inc., will begin construction later this year on a 105,000-square-foot office building at 100 Ottawa Ave. as part of Studio Park. Insurance brokerage firm Acrisure LLC will occupy the office building and move 400 jobs from Caledonia to downtown Grand Rapids.
Because of the mixed-use concepts of Studio Park, the developer selected each of the contractors for the specific expertise they could bring to the project, Olsen said, noting the environment “brought out the best in each of them.”
A high level of coordination and communication was required of the companies involved, especially at the peak of construction when more than 400 workers were on site, he said.
Olsen said leadership teams met once a week with all 20 site superintendents, project managers, safety directors and foremen to coordinate the work.
“Through the complex and passionate planning that we did every week, that vision made (Studio Park) happen,” he said. “It wasn’t what was best for one contractor or one company, but what was best for Studio Park.”
Those meetings involved heavy logistics planning by the respective companies with inside-site and outside-site safety measures, as well as coordinating parking, delivery and timelines, according to Beckering at Pioneer.
There is also a connector building within Studio Park that links its music venue known as The Listening Room, the hotel, theater and parking ramp, as well as the residential building. The companies coordinated stop and start times in the design phase for this part of the development down to the hour. The project was on an “accelerated schedule” so the firms needed to closely adhere to the timeline, Beckering said.
“Throughout those coordinations, it showed both contractors had to be adaptive and fluid,” said C.J. MacKenzie, vice president of construction at First Companies. “That’s just communication coordination, a key to why it was successful.”
During the grand opening for Studio Park, JD Loeks, president of Studio C, told MiBiz the development would have taken much longer had the project only used one contractor because of the “profound talent shortage” in West Michigan.
To that end, the Associated General Contractors of America noted in a construction employment report released this month that the industry added 500 jobs year over year as of August in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan area. Construction industry employment in the city stood at 26,700 people, a 2-percent gain from the same month a year ago.
That slow growth was on par with the industry’s national employment gains for the month of September, according to the AGC, which noted a 3.2-percent unemployment rate among job seekers who last worked in construction.
“Contractors foresee plenty of projects to bid on, and nearly three-fourths of firms expect to add workers during the next twelve months, but most are finding it hard to find qualified workers to hire,” AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson said in a statement. “That’s not surprising, given that the total unemployment rate hit a 50-year low in September — a sign that workers are hard to come by throughout the economy.”
With Pioneer’s and First Companies’ relationships with the subcontractor community, the two were able to “act as one” to combat the effects of the tight labor market, MacKenzie said.
“We were able to pull a great group of talent to secure the schedule we had in place and deliver on that, whereas if it was one firm with one contract, that would have posed some challenges,” he said. “I think we did a great job handling that with the teams we selected.”