Lending a hand

Out-of-town construction companies have a part to play in Slave Lake rebuild

Visitors at the new offices for the town of Slave Lake might notice an odd decoration sitting in a corner of the lobby-an oversized cheque for $100,000 from EllisDon Construction Services Inc.

The construction contractor may not currently have any projects in Slave Lake, but that doesn't mean it can't contribute to the recovery process. Like many other businesses around Canada who were touched by the devastation in the wake of the May wildfire that destroyed a large part of the town, employees at EllisDon took it upon themselves to raise funds for the town through the Red Cross, and the company matched the donation.

It's a simple reminder that the town can't do it alone. Like any small town, Slave Lake has its own local builders and skilled tradespeople, but a rebuild on this scale will tax the local construction industry to its limits. That's where outside companies come in.

"It's going to take out-of-town builders and factory builders," says Brian Vance, chief administrative officer for the town of Slave Lake. "It's difficult for local builders to take on a job of this magnitude."

Larger construction firms from across the country are making their presence felt in the town. Some, like EllisDon, might provide charitable support, but others have been hired to offer their expertise on the difficult construction projects facing the town.

One such company is Layfield Geosynthetics and Industrial Fabrics Ltd., which provides construction materials across North America. The company was called in to help on the building of a 150-unit trailer park on a muskeg on the east side of town.

With winter on the way, they only had a narrow three-week window to complete the project so that it could be ready in September. Heavy rains poured down in July, saturating the marshy soil with water and complicating the already difficult job.

In order to make the site suitable for building, trees had to be cleared away and geotextiles from Layfield were installed in order to create a working pad to build the trailer park upon. Not surprisingly, it was messy work.

"It was essentially a crew of labourers rolling out each roll [of geotextile] individually, sometimes in water up to their armpits, to get the proper overlaps, and weighing the rolls down with available rocks or whatever they could find until the fill could be applied on top of it," says Dave Redgate, manager at Seguin Construction (1979) Ltd., a Slave Lake company that worked on the project.

One of the biggest single projects in the town is similarly relying on the combination of out-of-towners and local businesses: the rebuilding of the Slave Lake Government Centre, a $35.8-million complex that previously housed the local and provincial governments, as well as the town library.

PCL Construction Management Inc.-one of the largest construction firms in North America-has been heading up the project, relying on a mixture of local craft workers and tradespeople, as well as Edmonton-based contractors.

Mike Wieninger, operations manager for PCL's Edmonton construction unit, couldn't be happier to take on the job. "It's very satisfying," he says. "You can see the excitement in the town when they see the rebuilding going on."

But residents will have to be patient before their town hall is restored to its former glory. The building originally took nearly two years to build, and it will take almost as long to restore. Wieninger expects the project to be finished in the spring of 2013.

Fortunately for the builders, much of the centre remains intact, albeit with severe water and fire damage. "Forty per cent of the building burned right down, and there was lots of damage to the part that survived," he says.

The job will be divided into a first phase dedicated to renovations on the damaged half and a second phase focused on rebuilding the destroyed wing, which housed the library. Wieninger says the building will be opened in stages, although specific dates have not yet been set.

PCL has around 10-15 staff working in town on the project, and it plans to bring in outside contractors as it needs them. But given the choice, Wieninger would like to tap the local talent pool. "The preference is local," he says. "If local isn't available, we'll bring in from out of town."

While other companies may be grappling with finding skilled workers (and then finding accommodations for them), PCL has avoided such problems, Wieninger says.

"We've just been very fortunate to have all the needs of the project met so far."

Indeed, the last thing he wants to do is complain about minor difficulties on a construction project.

"Seeing what the town has gone through, our problems are minimal."

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