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South Charleston has some can-do crews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - South Charleston's Public Works crews can do anything, their director said.

That includes building houses.

With one already constructed and sold, they are working on a second in the Tremont Street area near the Montrose exit of Interstate 64.

The 2,500-square-foot house should be completed within the next several months. Because the city is using its own labor, construction costs can be kept down.

But that doesn't mean the quality of the work suffers, Public Works Director Gerald Burgy said.

"We build everything to above code," he said Friday as he stood next to the foundation of the second home. "We don't skimp on anything."

The center support of the home is a steel beam, and construction crews also poured concrete into the foundation blocks to ensure there will be no cracks from a settling foundation.

The crews include experienced employees who do their best to make sure the job is done right, Burgy said.

Joe Shultz, 62, of South Charleston has been with the Public Works Department for about seven years.

But he has been doing masonry work for about 30. He worked for a company in South Charleston before it went out of business, which forced him to find another job. 

He learned masonry on the job and has helped construct homes and strip malls over the years.

"I started out working for my cousin as a laborer," Shultz said. "Then they needed masons so I moved to that."

Shultz helped lay the block for the foundation of the Tremont Street home. On Friday, he was placing brick on the front of the block.

Masonry work is skilled labor, and it is hard to find someone with those skills, Burgy said.

Joey Roush, 28, of South Charleston, has been working for the city since 2003.

Like Shultz, he gained his skills on the job. Roush started by helping family members at the tender age of 13, he said.

"I've been doing this for awhile," he said on Friday with a trowel in hand.

"You can show people how to do things in a book, but you can't learn how to do it until you really start doing it," he said. "Hands-on experience is the best."

Both Roush and Shultz said they enjoyed their work and appreciated their jobs with the city. When working for private construction firms, they were often laid off during the winter.

While private contractors slow down during the colder months, city workers are needed to drive salt trucks and plows.

"Joey (Roush) is one of the best salt truck drivers I have," Burgy said.

Terry Pauley, 38, of St. Albans has been working for the city for about a year this time around. He spent seven years with Public Works before leaving for a four-year stint elsewhere. 

Pauley comes from a long line of construction workers.

"This is what my dad did and my grandpa," he said.

Pauley started helping his elders at a young age.

"They always told me not to get into this type of work," he said with a laugh.

Pauley learned a lot from his father and grandfather, including working with blocks and pouring concrete, he said.

David Byrd, 47, of South Charleston, has been with the Public Works Department for 13 years.

He also started working with family members when he was a teenager.

"I started working with my uncle when I was 16," he said. "We were building houses and stuff."

The South Charleston crews have built more than houses. They built the Spring Hill Fire Station in 2009.

The city finished the project for about $500,000, Mayor Frank Mullens said.

"I'd say it would have cost us about $1.2 million if we would have used private crews," he  said.

And the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority covered $250,000 of the cost. An ambulance is housed at the station, he said.

The city also made about $120,000 from the sale of the old fire station.

"We had very little out-of-pocket cost for the fire station," Mullens said.

Building the fire station was one of the hardest jobs Shultz has undertaken, he said. He has seldom had the opportunity to work on a building of that size.

The in-house crews also built two baseball fields and a soccer field at Little Creek Park, Mullens said.

"I think it would have cost us about $2 or $3 million to do it with private crews, but we built them for about $500,000." 

The city has five construction crews with four to five guys per crew. They also clean drains, pour sidewalks, pick up trash and deal with storm damage like that caused by the June 29 derecho.

"You have to remember their first responsibility is picking up trash and keeping our streets clean," Burgy said. "But when you need them, you can count on them for anything."

And South Charleston needed the crews to deal with the problems on Tremont Street, Mullens said.

A large apartment complex and two houses on the site had become a nuisance for the city and for nearby residents.

The structures had become dilapidated, and some of the people living in the buildings were causing trouble. South Charleston police officers responded to 98 calls at the buildings in 2007 or 2008, the mayor said.

"Paramedics wouldn't go on calls there unless they were escorted by officers," Mullens said.

The area was a problem spot for everything from drugs to prostitution, he said. 

So, South Charleston leaders opted to take a gamble. They purchased the property for about $478,000 and razed the buildings.

The idea was to clear the property and rebuild three homes in the blue-collar neighborhood.

With the public works crews providing the labor, the first home cost about $150,000 to build, Mullens said. He estimates the second house will cost the same.

The first house was sold for about $250,000. And if the second and third houses cost the same as the first and sell for comparable amounts, it is unlikely the city will make a profit.

"While we'll still probably lose money on this deal, we turned a bad situation into a good one for the people that live up there," Mullens said. "This project was about improving the lives of the people in the community."

The city used the proceeds from the sale of the first house to purchase materials for the second, he said. 

The project would not have been possible if not for the public works construction crews.

"We couldn't find anyone in the private sector to come in and take this on and make money," Mullens said.

Pete Cosby, 49, has lived in his Tremont Street home for 11 years. He thinks the project about two houses down from his will help increase property values in the neighborhood.

He won't miss the old apartment building. 

"It's pretty much a normal thing; people buy the property in order to make money and then they forget about the people that live in the neighborhood," he said. "They would take money from people of questionable character." 

Fights would break out and other problems would arise. Cosby is happy about the city-built houses.  

"They're good neighbors," he said.

Cosby has no problem with city government undertaking what is typically a private endeavor.

"South Charleston really cares about the city and the neighborhoods," he said. "They take care of things."

George Blankenship, 70, has lived in his home for 44 years. He is also pleased with the construction projects. He said the apartment complex could get "rough at times."

"But it looks like this is going to be nice," Blankenship said about the houses.  

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.

 


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