A conversation on building

Jim Street poses in front of the Amazon distribution center in Bristol, Va. designed by his firm, J. A. Street & Associates. Photo by A.J. Kaufman

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

J.A. Street & Associates is a locally owned general contracting firm serving Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Nearly four decades old and based in Blountville, they have about 140 employees and are a respected industry leader in the design and construction of commercial, industrial and institutional buildings.

Some of Street’s noteworthy projects are the Bristol Hotel, Amazon Distribution Center, West Ridge High School, HMG Medical Plaza and several Friendship Automotive properties. We sat down with CEO and President Jim Street in late April for a wide-ranging interview:

Business Journal: A substantial number of construction workers — perhaps half of the current workforce — are expected to retire during the next decade. How are you attracting a new generation of workers, especially as labor is needed for other infrastructure projects around the nation? Is your firm seeking methods to attract students and promote your industry as an alternative to college?

Jim Street: We are very active in career fairs at the high school and collegiate levels. Right now, we have partnered with Northeast State on an apprenticeship program. We have 16 people in the apprenticeship program…Northeast State has taken over what we used to do in house. They take our carpenters and train them, using their national curriculum. They provide the space and instructors. We’ve worked with them at least three years. Do we retain all of them (the employees from Northeast State)? No, but we do a pretty darn good job.

A lot of our employees come from families. We recruit from families. We don’t do a lot of advertising, but we are always talking it up with our employees, at meetings, and word of mouth. We also offer a referral bonus.

BJ: What is the growth area in commercial real estate and construction across the region? Also, is there an overabundance of commercial vacancies in our market, and what is your recommendation for re-use of these properties?

Jim Street, president and CEO of J.A. Street & Associates. Photo by A.J. Kaufman

JS: Warehousing and manufacturing. We do medical office buildings too, and that’s been steady. Commercial real estate, like Food City and shopping centers, has picked up quite a bit, and the cost of buildings has gone up. Food City is growing and expanding.
I don’t see it (the abundance of commercial vacancies in this market). We have very little vacancy, less than 5%. We own 1.2 million square feet of properties. A lot of it’s industrial, but still commercial… and vacancy is not very much right now.

BJ: Recent reports showed government regulations added nearly 25% to the cost of a typical new property, which naturally has a sizable impact on affordability. How can you get lawmakers to understand that when you overlap thousands of fees at various levels, it slows production and drives up costs?

JS: We had a project with some wetlands problems. It took us two years to get the problem worked out and $250,000 to do mediation. That went before the U.S. Supreme Court last year (“Waters of the United States”) and that opened up a lot of property to develop that was not developable. This was in Gatlinburg/Sevierville. I find that regulators, lots of times, enforce stuff not to letter of law; they enforce it the way they think it needs to be.

BJ: The pandemic disrupted many traditional rules and expectations, and your industry certainly wasn’t immune. Do you have any stories about adjustments made during or after COVID?

JS: The construction industry was noted as an essential business. Everything was in short supply. There are still lingering effects. Did the construction slow down? It didn’t dip off like the home building. We’ve come back. For instance, steel. Everything you put in a building is affected by steel. It was a year to get it, and before the pandemic, it was eight weeks. The price went up. But pricing has stabilized.

BJ: Your website notes that “We accept the challenge of continuing to be the best and promise to deliver a quality product while continuing to offer new ideas and proven solutions for functional facilities which will perform now and in the future.” Elaborate on that, especially as it pertains to the future.

JS: We are training our people more as machine operators. The advances they’ve made in hand tools is amazing, and it’s taken out a lot of the hard labor. We put GPSs on our equipment. We use a lot of project management software that’s second to none as far as running and planning the job. We do more seminars. If it’s a new product, we invest in it. We are out there, I think, on the leading edge with different products…We have civil engineers and architects who work with the team as far as looking at costs as well as the appearance.

HMG Medical Plaza in Kingsport. Photo Courtesy J.A. Street & Associates

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