Construction continues during COVID-19 pandemic in Chattanooga, but future projects a worry

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Two pieces of heavy equipment move earth at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 24 on April 6, 2020.

Most of Chattanooga's biggest building projects such as the Volkswagen expansion, the Red Wolves soccer complex and the U.S. 27 widening downtown aren't stopping amid the coronavirus.

But an industry expert said that some future projects may be hurt as the materials supply chain becomes a problem coupled with economic and financial uncertainty.

"A lot of projects are moving forward, but we totally expect the pipeline to slow down as we move forward," said Leslie Gower, the excutive director for the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee.

At Chattanooga's VW production plant, an $800 million expansion to make electric vehicles is ongoing and hasn't had disruptions, though contractors are only working outdoors at this time, said spokeswoman Amanda Plecas.

"Our contractors are following Homeland Security rules in regards to essential activities," she said. "Volkswagen is overseeing the construction to ensure social distancing as well as adherence to the necessary health and safety precautions."

At the Chattanooga Red Wolves planned $125 million soccer and mixed-use complex in East Ridge, team owner Bob Martino said work is going at "a good pace" and builders are meeting COVID-19 procedures and government requirements.

"Thankfully we are moving ahead with construction and able to do so with little disruption to this point," he said. "Although given the uncertainty of this pandemic, we are prepared to weather any further delays should they occur."

Burt Odom, CEO of Chattanooga-based builder EMJ Corp., said the company continues to work, including locally at the River Rock mixed-use development downtown that will be one of the biggest-ever new housing and commercial complexes in the riverfront area.

But there are a couple of states where there has been some work stoppages, he said.

"Our top priority is the health and well-being of our people," Odom said. "We're following all national, state and local mandates."

The U.S. 27 widening and the remake to the I-75/24 split are moving ahead with no significant reduction in work, said Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn.

"Individual contractors are taking steps of their own to address work during the COVID-19 outbreak," she said.

The $143.2 million widening of U.S. 27 through downtown is one of the most expensive of its kind in Tennessee history. A $132.6 million project to improve the split will take just shy of two-and-a-half years

Kent Starwalt, the Tennessee Road Builder Association's executive vice president, said its members have put safety protocols into the place such as hand-washing, temperature checking and social distancing.

Some contractors are taking steps such as cutting crews in half so that if one person gets the virus and not everyone on the work site is sent home, Starwalt said.

"It's a way to limit exposure," he said.

Because there's less traffic in the wake of state and local mandates, that has resulted in a safety benefit for the road workers, Starwalt said.

Gower said there are some projects which have slowed down or paused. For example, there are instances where builders were doing inside work and they didn't feel they could follow coronavirus safety rules, she said.

She said the association has sent builders "safety kits" containing info about using face masks, social distancing and a questionnaire seeking responses about travel and if workers have a fever.

Because of a shortage of thermometers, a lot of members are asking employees to take their temperature before they show up at the work site, Gower said.

Jack Bowen, president of EMJ subsidiary EMJ Construction, said the company has taken a lot of new safety steps, such as suspending all mass transit travel, including on airlines. On the job sites, EMJ has implemented just one entry point per project, set up handwashing stations, prohibited meetings in trailers and upgraded cleaning requirements, he said.

The construction industry is key to the vitality of the economy and helps people "maintain a glimmer of hope that it's not as terrible as it may seem," Bowen said.

Odom said it's hard to say what the future will hold.

"We're living in a day-to-day world," he said. "Is this something we see over in three months or six months? We're not sure. We've got to honor what state and local mandates say."

At the Red Wolves site at I-75 and I-24, the goal is to have the stadium ready for games and or events to take place this summer, Martino said. He noted that the overall project will build out over the next 3 to 5 years and will consist of more than 300,000-square-feet of class "A" office space, retail shopping including a grocery store, multiple restaurants and night clubs, and 400 apartments.

Red Wolves President Sean McDaniel said the Red Wolves are committed to health and safety and have had the front office working from home for the past three weeks while maintaining a player training moratorium until further notice from the league.

"Also, it will be important for us all to have a venue to go to and celebrate the end of all of this once that time comes," said McDaniel.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.