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City projects short on bidders

Janet Urquhart

Aspen is turning to a construction expert in hopes of bringing in a pair of projects at their budgeted cost for a change.

Aspen’s booming construction industry often has the city begging for bidders on its projects and, when it manages to get a contractor or two to submit a bid, the costs are invariably well above the projected budget for the job.

“The traditional bidding process we’ve been using just isn’t working in this environment anymore,” noted City Manager Steve Barwick last week as the Housing Board expressed dismay over the sole bid for its Seventh and Main affordable housing project.

The $2.6 million bid for the 11-unit project came in some $750,000 over projections. It was a familiar story.

With a couple of large projects on its plate this fall, the city has hired Shaw Construction as its construction manager to oversee the design/bid process and, hopefully, reverse that trend, said Ed Sadler, the city’s asset manager.

“We’re going to depend on Shaw’s experience in this valley and their contacts to get us a better price and stay within our budget,” he said. “We think they’re worth the money.”

The city has contracted with Shaw for $235,000 to get through the bid process for the planned Iselin Park recreation complex – a projected $12 million construction project – and the redevelopment at Truscott Place.

Though the Truscott budget has not been finalized, Sadler expects it will exceed $30 million. The project includes 99 units of affordable housing, new tennis courts, a pro shop/restaurant for the municipal golf course, a redesigned intersection at Highway 82 and a pedestrian underpass beneath the highway.

Work at Truscott is expected to begin this fall, about four months ahead of the Iselin work.

The city is looking to Shaw for help in scheduling the work and possibly bidding out the projects in pieces, allowing, for example, one contractor to bid on the earthwork at both sites.

“The dirt work, a lot of the concrete, installing utilities – that’s very similar work,” Sadler said. “And plumbing is plumbing.”

If Shaw helps the city obtain satisfactory bids, the firm may be retained through construction of the projects, he added.

Past practice – having an architect design a project and then putting it out for bids from general contractors, who then seek subcontractors for various jobs within the project – simply doesn’t work, said Sadler.

In a strong construction market, contractors have plenty of work without bidding on projects for the government, which can be a stickler of a boss.

“There are a lot of jobs with a lot less hassles than when you’re working for the government,” Sadler admitted.

The city requires bid bonds, performance bonds and insurance. It retains 10 percent of the payment for the job until 30 days after it is accepted as satisfactorily completed. Essentially, the city keeps a close eye on the work it gets for the taxpayers’ money, he said.

Sadler recently put out a request for bids on a structural analysis of the city’s older buildings. He sent it to five different companies, but had no takers. The project has been shelved for now.

The city had also hoped to replace the stairway between the Rio Grande Parking Garage and the youth center with one that had a snowmelt system, but the one bid it received came in at well over $1 million.

“We rejected it,” Sadler said. “We didn’t have that kind of money.”

The city received just two bids for the recently completed downtown pedestrian project along two blocks of Mill Street and a block of Hyman Avenue. The budget was about $1 million, but both bids came in at about $1.6 million. The city was forced to scale back the project to bring down the price.

It used to be, the city could expect to receive five or six bids on a project. “If you get less than that, or only get one, you’re really not getting a choice,” Sadler said.

That’s exactly what happened on the Seventh and Main housing project.

“I tried to encourage several different contractors to bid – they just wouldn’t do it,” said Lee Novak, project manager for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.

He is now working with the sole bidder for the work, Fenton Construction, to pare down the price tag.

“What we basically have done is say we have a number we want you to reach . if you can’t reach that number, we’re not going to work with you,” he said.

There are some things that can be done, Novak said, though the housing office won’t compromise the quality of the project to bring in a lower price.

“There’s not a lot of fat to trim off this project,” he said. “And the last thing we want to do is put up a building that’s junk.”

Novak said he’s confident the builder can come back with an acceptable bid. He expects to take the construction contract to the City Council on July 24 so work can begin Aug. 1 as scheduled.


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