Area builders eye changing business, changing locations
December 25, 2008
ROARING FORK VALLEY ” A Carbondale man who has worked in construction for 20 years in the valley is staring at a bleak 2009 and may have to get out of the business or leave the valley.
At one time Mark Wolfe, 47, was managing his own construction firm, Wolfe Brand, and employing a crew of carpenters and others to build houses in the midvalley.
“I was a small general contractor,” he recalled. “I did one house at a time in the midvalley area.”
When reached this week, however, he was shoveling some 18 inches of fresh powder off the deck of the 13,500-square-foot house where he’s currently working, on Midnight Mine Road, and thinking about taking some classes and moving into a different line of the construction field.
“For the last three years I’ve been working for another builder,” he said, a reference to his job as a site supervisor for Wodehouse Builders, which he took when he closed his business.
“I just ran out of money and ran out of steam in about 2005,” Wolfe said about giving up his business. “The cost of doing business was rising faster than my ability to generate income,” a condition he believed began when the economy slumped following Sept. 11. So he closed his business and went to work for Wodehouse as a construction superintendent and supervisor for two years.
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And when Wodehouse recently shut down, too, he said, the owner of the project on Midnight Mine Road asked Wolfe and two others to stay on and finish the house.
He expects work on the house to be done by February.
“After that, the future’s looking pretty shaky,” he said, explaining that there’s a lack of demand in the valley for superintendents or supervisors.
His wife is a teacher at the Yampah Mountain High School in Carbondale, pulling in about $40,000 per year. His average income is about $55,000 a year.
“We’ve been pretty comfortable,” he said.
Wolfe said he has had other jobs in the valley, including one as a shuttle driver when he first arrived two decades ago. And at a recent job fair in Aspen, he said, the companies with tables included the Aspen Skiing Co., the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Gray Line bus and van company.
But those job opportunities did not interest him.
Plus, he predicted, “Recent arrivals that came here with promises of work are probably going to be leaving the valley. Some of us might have to re-educate or re-train ourselves.”
He has been talking with John Weiss, head of the Solar Energy International nonprofit organization in Carbondale, about taking classes in alternative energy building practices, something he is already familiar with from work he did on his own and for Wodehouse.
Lacking any other opportunities locally, Wolfe said, “I’m considering I may have to relocate.” He said he would more than likely move somewhere else to get work, leaving his wife and children here and sending money back.
“I think people are going to have to get really creative,” he said.
“I’ll tell you how to be recession-proof ” have five careers,” declared Glenwood Springs resident Bruce Stolbach, who has followed his own advice in recent years and is weathering the current economic slump in pretty good shape.
Stolbach, 54, describes himself as a part time “designer draftsman,” a ski instructor, a fly fishing guide, a code consultant and builder.
It was as a carpenter that he got his start in the valley more than 30 years ago when, after a short stint waiting tables in Aspen restaurants, he became a partner of builder
John Foulkrod of Carbondale.
But in the early 1980s the partnership dissolved. So Stolbach looked around for something with a little more stability and permanence to it than carpentry, and ended up taking classes at Colorado Mountain College in Computer Assisted Design.
He found work as a building inspector and plans checker for several towns in the valley during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and did a little CAD drawing work on the side for a select group of clients.
During the same general time frame Stolbach and a couple of partners started Alpine Angling, a fly fishing shop in Carbondale. That has since spawned a second shop, Roaring Fork Anglers in Glenwood Springs, and Stolbach works as a guide for both in the appropriate seasons.
And about five years ago, he said, he started teaching skiing, concentrating primarily on Buttermilk Ski Area but going wherever his clients want him to go.
“Between all that stuff, you might find something to do,” he said with a laugh. If one kind of work slows down, he said, he starts putting more energy into the others.
For example, he owns a house near Glenwood Springs with a rental unit on the ground floor, and does his own maintenance and repair work.
Stolbach said he once designed bottles for over-the-counter medications, at the request of an out-of-state ski school client who owns a manufacturing business.
He also has found himself instructing skiers on the mountain one day, and taking a client out on one of the local rivers to go fly-fishing the next.
“Winter fly-fishing is great around here,” he enthused. “It’s like skiing ” if you dress for it, then you’re comfortable.
And last summer he designed a duplex in Silt that was built by another of his on-again, off-again partners, Ken “Luby” Lubrant of Carbondale.
These days, he said, “I’m making most of my income from ski instructing”
He said design jobs fell off in the fall, after the financial meltdown of Wall Street morphed into a national and international recession.
And his job as a plan-checker for the town of Silt also disappeared, when building applications dried up.
But even before the fiscal crisis, he said, the building and design opportunities
slowed down over the summer, presaging a slump in the housing market.
The fly-fishing business kept him busy until October, he said, and he was looking forward to ski season and the resumption of his job as an instructor.
But, he said, “I didn’t work at all” until he hooked up with a new client on Dec. 21.
“I’d say it’s definitely a little tougher to make ends meet” this year than it was last year,
Stolbach said. “I’m gonna make it, but it’s a little scary.”
He estimated that his income has dropped by as much as 25 percent over last year.
“The main thing is, my drafting is the area that’s really suffering, and that’s a definite result of the mortgage crisis,” he mused, “so I’m fishing more and skiing more. It’s not so bad. Oh, and I’m eating Top Ramen [a noodle soup in a package].”
While some builders, whether through foresight or luck, are looking to weather the economic storm, for some the story is far more dire.
One builder, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears that creditors would react badly to his name in this story, is facing ruin.
Formerly a resident of Snowmass Village, and at one time the employer of a dozen or more workers, he has watched his business dwindle to the point where “I don’t have a single job until next April, and I can’t last that long,” he said recently.
Now living outside the valley, he said he may have to sell a backwoods cabin he and his wife built when times were better, to stave off bankruptcy. His house, which he remodeled extensively after buying it several years ago, is mortgaged and leveraged to the hilt as a result of recent setbacks in the building business.
He also is in the middle of a lawsuit against a former client who he says has refused to pay the full contract amount on a remodel, even though he project is completed and the client has moved into the house.
In the meantime, he has returned to an earlier vocation, just to make ends meet ” running teams of sled dogs through the woods with tourists bundled snugly into the sled.