By Andy Ostmeyer
Construction in Joplin since the tornado is approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Since May 22, 2011, about $715 million in construction has been started in Joplin, according to the latest building permit figures, which were for the months of August and September.
While much of the total stems from the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, the number doesn’t include other large projects, such as Joplin High School, for which no permit has yet been filed, or the addition of safe rooms at other schools. The new combined high school and Franklin Technology Center has been projected to cost between $100 million and $110 million, according to school officials.
Nor does the $715 million reflect some of the proposed master developer or SPARK projects that are being discussed, such as a new library and theater, or renovation of the Union Depot.
That $715 million dwarfs the pace of construction Joplin saw in even its best year before the tornado.
“It is just outrageously busy,” said Dave Johnson, president of Construction Adventures, of Joplin. “There is activity everywhere you look. So much money being injected into the community has just brought it to life.”
He’s quick to point out that not all of the work is tornado-related. A new office building near Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is going up, for example.
Johnson believes projects such as the new library and theater proposed by the master developer also will spin off more growth nearby.
“Other people are going to want to build next to that,” he said. “That’s where we come in.”
The new hospital will do the same.
Joplin’s effort to rebuild since the tornado also has put the city on a lot of radars and made it more likely to attract other business, Johnson said. He noted that the owner of Blue Buffalo was so impressed with Joplin’s rebuilding effort that he cited it as one of the reasons he chose to invest $85 million in the community for a new pet food plant.
“I look for continued growth for quite some time,” Johnson said. “It’s a good time for Joplin.”
Chuck Killinger, of Dalton-Killinger Construction, has also seen unprecedented activity.
“Things are really going well as far as the city goes,” he said. “The recession hit us really badly and things were slow, but after the tornado things have picked up.”
His company also is working on industrial projects that are not related to the tornado.
“The industrial sector has been plugging along and things are getting a little better,” he added.
Before the tornado, Joplin was averaging about $2 million a month in construction, as the recession and tighter lending put the brakes on building. For several years before the tornado, building projects valued at more than $1 million were infrequent. Since then, the average has been about $42 million per month.
That $715 million total since the tornado includes a $269.4 million permit issued earlier this year to Sisters of Mercy Health System for construction of a new hospital at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard to replace St. John’s Regional Medical Center. It is the largest building permit in Joplin’s history.
In August, nearly $23 million in construction permits were filed, according to city figures; in September, that amount was $22 million. The latter includes a permit for more than $14 million for a new elementary school near the former St. John’s Regional Medical Center that will replace the tornado-wrecked Irving and Emerson elementary schools.
Work on East Middle School and an adjacent elementary school, valued at $45 million, is outside the city limits of Joplin.
According to city building permits, construction so far in the current fiscal year has hit $537 million. The city’s fiscal year runs from Nov. 1 to Oct. 31.
For the year that ended Oct. 31, 2011, building permits hit $192 million, with almost all of that coming in the five months after the tornado.
The previous record for Joplin, set in 2007, was $128 million.
According to city figures through Oct. 15, 79 percent of the dwellings damaged by the tornado have been permitted.
That includes 3,707 permits for residential repairs and rebuilds, 976 permits for new homes, 1,215 permits for new multifamily dwelling units, such as apartments, for a total of 5,898 units. City estimates are that about 7,500 residences, including houses and apartments, were destroyed by the tornado.
While the pace of construction has broken records in Joplin, Douglas Ferguson, general manager of the homebuilders division for Joplin Construction Design and Management, said there is a drag slowing the pace of home rebuilding.
He said he is aware of many homeowners who are unwilling to rebuild right now or reluctant to return to their previous location because they don’t know what will be going in next door. They don’t want to spend $150,000 or $250,000 on a home only to find that the neighborhood is filled with homes valued at half that amount.
Earlier this year, he was building a $280,000 home for a client, but shortly after he started building, a modular ranch-style house valued at much less than his client’s house went in next door. Another neighbor converted a garage into a rental house.
“We have other examples of that,” he said.
Ferguson also said some homes that are being built back are smaller than what was there previously, and that the city should have adopted more aggressive controls, including a requirement that new homes be built to 80 to 90 percent of the size of the old home. He also said planned developments leading to houses of similar value and size in different areas would have protected homeowner equity.
“There is nothing that says you have to build a certain size or a certain price range,” he said. “You can build a modular anywhere. You can build a mansion anywhere. I have several clients that the job is on hold or they said, ‘Screw it, I’m moving out.”
He thinks more comprehensive planning for the entire damage zone would have helped.
“It’s too late now,” he said. “It’s going to be a hodgepodge.”
City Planner Troy Bolander has said previously that modular homes, which are built on a foundation, are not classified as mobile homes (which are built on steel frames) and meet city codes, even though they may have low-pitched roofs, little or no overhangs, and built-on porches.
Former Joplin mayor and current City Council member Mike Woolston also has defended the city position, saying during previous city meetings with builders: “I don’t think people want the city to tell them what size and style of house they should build.”
“That is going to totally destroy the tax base in 10 to 15 years,” Ferguson said.
The tornado in Joplin, an EF-5 with wind speeds of at least 200 mph, cut a six-mile path across the city. The tornado was a mile wide at times. It damaged or destroyed 7,500 dwellings and 553 businesses.