Truckee’s economic boom bigger than the labor pool
Johnny Spicer sleeps on the back porch of the home he is building. His foreman Duane sleeps in an RV parked nearby. And less than one mile down the road, Terry Rogers – who is working on a completely separate project – lives out of his van.
“Keep on Truckin'” has been painted on the back bumper of Rogers’ van, and that is exactly what he does. From one boomtown to another, Rogers makes his living during summer and autumn as a migrant construction worker.
“You know the definition of a hobo is a migratory worker so I guess that’s what I am,” he joked.
Truckee’s migrant contractors make a reasonable living, too.
Last year Spicer earned $40,000 in six months framing houses in Truckee.
“I was framing in Park City, Utah and my friend called me up and said he could pay me twice as much as I was making so I was into that,” he said.
Rogers’ wages, between $20 and $30 per hour, are common for framers.
“I was making $10 to $12 per hour in Idaho. The work there doesn’t pay. I’ve been coming down here for about 12 years now,” Rogers said.
Although a California resident before settling in Idaho, Rogers learned of Truckee’s constuction market through a friend.
“He asked me what I wanted to make. I told him, and he said he could do it.”
Reminiscent of the gold rush, Truckee’s economic prosperity has leaked eastward and framers such as Rogers and Spicer are leaving places like Idaho and Utah to capitalize on Truckee’s booming market.
However, the number of construction projects is not so large when compared to anticipated town growth.
The California Department of Finance reports the annual rate of housing unit construction in Truckee since 1994 to be 265 units per year, which matches almost exactly the general plan projections of 266 units per year for 1994 through 2005.
In 1998 the town received 283 housing applications, in 1999 the town received 345 applications and in the first eight months of 2000 the town received 242 applications.
Town Planner Duane Hall expects this year’s annual total will again exceed 266, the number of units predicted in the general plan.
The number of commercial applications has varied since 1994, as developers for projects such as Featherstone, PC-2, and others have applied for numerous applications at the same time.
For example, in June of this year 74 commercial applications were filed with the town, which exceeds the five-year average by more than 100 percent. Similarly, large single unit buildings such as town homes, which may accommodate several families, only appear as one commercial application.
While the numbers may be subject to debate, visual evidence of construction is readily apparent in areas like Tahoe Donner, where new units are common.
“As long as the economy is good there will be migrant workers,” former President for Contractors Association of Truckee-Tahoe (CATT) and current town council candidate Ted Owens said. “They have always been here, especially when the economy in nearby areas isn’t as strong.”
Local developers such as Thomas Grossman assert that out-of-town builders don’t take work away from local contractors, they take up the extra work.
“While the migrant workers are here they are spending a good deal of money to stay here,” he added.
However, both Owens and Grossman remarked that local contractors are likely to do higher quality work because they are more familiar with the effects of climate and precipitation.
“There is a learning curve involved to building up here. It takes [migrant contractors] three to four houses before they realize the dynamics of mountain and heavy snow-load construction,” Grossman said.
Owens said climactic and environmental issues make building in the high Sierra different than building at lower elevation.
To help local contractors handle more of the workload or to train new workers CATT has organized a Regional Education Program in cooperation with Sierra College. The program takes place at Truckee-Tahoe High School and is designed for both new and experienced builders.
“The education program is for all phases of construction,” said CATT member Syd Bartlett. “It gives people enough knowledge so we can place them anywhere.”
Bartlett, a project manager, said this is the biggest year of construction Truckee has ever had.
“We can’t get enough good people that aren’t already busy,” he said.
Spicer, 23, said he may stay in Lake Tahoe this winter – if his girlfriend lets him- even though his boss may be moving on.
“I’d like to get my contractor’s license in California,” he said. “I have one in Utah, but the money is so much better out here. This is the place to be.”
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