Greater Hartford Planning $334M in Magnet School Construction
By Brad Kane
September 03, 2012
The Capitol Region Education Council is planning seven magnet school construction projects totaling $334 million over the next three years, which should help boost the struggling education segment of the Connecticut construction industry.
Hartford-based CREC has been tasked with creating 18 magnet schools in the region in 11 years. Eight of those schools have a building already in place, leaving 10 to be built in the coming years. The State Bond Commission has awarded construction funds for seven, and construction started in July.
“Our school construction is one of the big movers of money right now,” said John Mena, CREC construction division director.
Construction has been one of the hardest hit industries in Connecticut since the start of the economic recession in 2007. The industry has been flat or slightly rising for the past year, but analysts predict robust recovery won't come until 2014 at the earliest.
Through July, Connecticut's construction industry had $2.3 billion in new and renovation projects, up 4 percent from the same time period in 2011, according to McGraw-Hill's monthly construction research and analysis report.
However, school construction in Connecticut is down 24 percent through July — $413.4 million in construction compared to $543.6 million in 2011.
“It is just like everything else, it is down, too,” said Diane Harp Jones, chief executive and executive vice president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Communities tend to be cautious in building new schools right now.”
School construction is a major driver of the construction industry, as it comprised 43 percent of all non-residential construction contracts awarded so far this year.
“It is certainly extremely important,” said Barry Svigals, founder and managing partner of New Haven architecture firm Svigals + Partners. “We are very fortunate to be working on a couple of schools right now.”
Svigals is working on the Goodwin College Early Childhood Magnet School in East Hartford, the Engineering and Science University Magnet School in New Haven, and the Jonathan Reed Elementary School in Waterbury.
Svigals said schools have to be designed in a way that's unique to each institution's individual needs. Gone are the days of the box school, replaced by multi-use facilities catering to the type of learning going on there.
“We have realized more and more that schools are a really important economic developer,” Svigals said. “It serves the community as a whole in many ways.”
CREC takes that same concept in its approach to its 18 magnet schools. At the $66 million Public Safety Academy breaking ground on Sept. 20 in Enfield, the lobby is designed as a big open space where fire trucks can drive right into the building, a science lab is geared toward forensics, and one space is a replica of an emergency room.
“We ask really hard questions about the design of the building,” said Bruce Douglas, CREC executive director.
Not only does each magnet school have to be designed for each theme, but the architecture has to hold up 10-15 years down the line as learning evolves and the community uses the facility for other purposes as well.
“Once a school is completed, we view it as a municipal building,” Douglas said.
This summer, the agency opened the Glastonbury East Hartford Elementary Magnet School, the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts Elementary Magnet School in Bloomfield, and — inside the old Colt Armory — the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts Middle School and the Two Rivers Magnet High School.
The new round of seven CREC magnet schools breaking ground in the next two years will be in Enfield, South Windsor, Avon, New Britain, Windsor, and Wethersfield.
Of the $334 million slated for those projects, $40 million has been awarded thus far — 98 percent of which went to Connecticut firms. The projects are putting 58 firms to work, creating 1,900 jobs throughout the entire process.
“We see it as a major jobs program. We see it as a community service program,” Douglas said. “It is state dollars, so it should be put back into the community.”
Because school construction as a whole is down right now, this is creating a pent-up demand in the market that will one day be realized once communities start feeling more comfortable performing major capital projects, Harp Jones said.
“There is a wide consensus now. It is a buyers' market,” Harp Jones said. “Communities with the funding have found this is a very good time to do projects of this kind.”