Santa Cruz Sentinel Article

By JONDI GUMZ — Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 09/16/2010 07:20:14 PM PDT

frontpage2.jpgSANTA CRUZ – Local contractors are banding together to survive the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Their organization, the Santa Cruz Construction Guild, gives homeowners a way to find reliable local tradespeople for improvement projects.

Mike Hartrich, 58, a general contractor in Scotts Valley, started the guild a year ago, as the market for construction dried up.

The number of building permits in the county plummeted from 578 in 2007 to 257 in 2008, then 109 in 2009, according to the Construction Industry Research Board

The value of that work plunged as well, from $229 million in 2007 to $166 million in 2008, then $105 million in 2009.

From January to June this year, 57 building permits worth $49 million were issued, up 10 percent from a year ago.

“All our business is word of mouth,” said Kevin Gallagher of KG Construction in Santa Cruz. “Everybody’s treading water trying to stay afloat.”

Hartrich came here in 1976 from Chicago “with 10 cents in his pocket,” began working in construction in 1980 and started his own business in 1989, with his first project surviving the earthquake and winning an award.

He built the guild website,, after taking a course. The site, searchable alphabetically and by trade, costs members $157 a year.

Unlike Angie’s List, which charges consumers a membership fee but is free to service companies, the construction guild information is free to homeowners, who can leave a testimonial and a rating.

Asked why he formed a new group rather than join Think Local First County of Santa Cruz, Hartrich said home improvement remodels are “a natural niche” and noted the guild is a member of Think Local, an organization that promotes local businesses.

Think Local First co-founder Karl Heiman said the construction guild makes a lot of sense.

“This makes it easy for developers or anyone needing construction work to find locally owned contractors,” he said. “It’s much better than hiring out-of-town contractors.”

Guild membership has grown to nearly 100.

About two dozen are general contractors. Others handle excavation, framing and foundations, plumbing, heating and electrical work, painting, roofing and drywall, carpentry, cabinetry and landscaping. Some specialize in green building or design-build.

Lumberyards such as Scarborough, Big Creek and Monument have joined along with stores such as Greenspace and Las Animas Building Supply.

Last week, Big Creek Lumber’s Soquel Avenue store hosted a daylong training on new requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on handling lead-based paint, which was banned in 1978. About 15 contractors attended the session, organized by Hartrich.

During the lunch break, Dan Forshner of Santa Cruz, a contractor for 30 years, talked about the benefits of guild membership.

“It’s reassuring to get the referrals,” he said, noting more people search online now when they plan home improvements.

“I’ve had four jobs come through, three from working with members I hadn’t worked with before,” said Hartrich, noting the website has 190 to 300 new visitors a week.

He used to have a full crew; today he does not have any employees but works with two licensed contractors.

“We don’t charge as much as we used to,” he said. “You have to adjust to conditions.”

He’s working on a remodel on Stockton Avenue in Santa Cruz with plumber Richard Peifer, The Furnace Room, Heber Roofing, KB Concrete, and V’s Demolition, all guild members. Materials came from Las Animas Building Supply and Big Creek Lumber.

Still, in many cases, calls have not turned into jobs.

“The economy’s No. 1,” Hartrich said. “People are reluctant to move on big projects.”

Felton resident Mike Grohohl, who’s worked in construction for 30 years, figures that at some point, people will have to undertake repairs they have postponed.

“It’s a cyclical thing,” he said. “It will come back. It is coming back.”

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