ST. GEORGE— After some difficult years, construction is starting to look like a bright spot in the Southern Utah economy again, with building permits up, more homes selling and home prices rising.The industry hit hardest by the Great Recession and the end of Southern Utah’s housing boom — experts estimate 50 percent of area contractors either left the area or went out of business — is finally seeing some recovery, and construction workers are getting back to work, with year-over-year job growth for the first time since the recession.
“I think we’re just at that breaking point where people are going to start hiring more,” said Troy Ence, co-owner of Ence Homes in St. George, where business is up by about 10 percent this year.
Ence said the company has been encouraged by gains the past several months, adding that a busy July — a month usually slower because of the heat — included 23 sales. It’s to the point where some contractors are struggling to find skilled laborers because so many left or found other employment, he said.
“This is probably the best July we’ve had in five years,” he said.
Statewide, construction employment was up 4.7 percent year-over-year in June, according to the latest economic analysis from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, and Lecia Langston, area economist for the Department of Workforce Services, said the industry is moving forward with the rest of the economy.
Construction recovered slower than other industries because of its unique ties to the housing boom, she said, but now it is part of a more diversified economy.
“To me the most positive indicator is that every single industry saw growth this year,” she said. “It’s broad based, and hopefully something that can continue.”
For builders, it has been a welcome reprieve after some tough times, said Austin Andersen, owner of AJ Construction.
Andersen said his company has grown from 10 employees to 19 in the past six months, still a far cry from the 40 employees it had during the peak of the boom, but a comfortable number given the work available, he said.
“Our concrete guys are booked out for three months, and I haven’t seen that in five years,” he said.
Andersen said loans are still hard to come by for many Americans, and builders are still wary of overextending themselves past what the market can continue to support.
“We’re still very cautious. I think all of us who went through what we went through will probably be that way the rest of our lives,” Andersen said.
But while the money isn’t flying like it was during the boom, the stricter lending standards and tighter controls all around lend at least a little more credibility to the improving markets, Andersen said.
“It needs to be that way,” he said. “We shouldn’t be building homes for people who can’t afford them, or for people who can’t afford to sit on them if they don’t sell.”
Carol Sapp, executive officer for the southern utah home builders Association, said she thinks the new growth is healthier. People are still tentative, waiting for the elections and holding back on major purchases in some cases, she said, but in the long run, if the economic growth is sustained, they will want new homes. And Washington County, with its scenery, weather and friendly atmosphere, still has some natural advantages to attract new buyers.
“People want to come here,” she said. “That we know.”