To unemployed Building Trades members, Mall of America expansion mean jobs

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For Carpenter Bruce Meyer, the proposed expansion of the Mall of America means one thing: a steady job. Meyer, age 56, of Cannon Falls, last worked 5 months ago. His unemployment benefits expire this month. His health insurance expired April 30. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Meyer, a member of Local 87.
“In the ’70s, it was not this bad. When you look at all the areas – gas prices, the housing market, the job market, the issues with health care, the issues with just employment in general, employment across the board, not only in the construction trades – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it this bad.”

Hundreds rally to support expansion

Meyer was among hundreds of unemployed construction workers who rallied in the Capitol Rotunda Tuesday, chanting “Construction jobs now!” and cheering legislative leaders from both parties who said they support legislation clearing the way for the mall’s expansion.

The $2.1 billion expansion would double the mall’s size. Most important to workers like Meyer, it would create 7,000 construction jobs over the next four years. It would provide twice as many jobs at the 35W Bridge, the Twins ballpark and the Gophers stadium combined.

The expansion includes $1.8 billion in private investment – if the state approves public financing for an 8,000-car parking ramp and other infrastructure. Legislation would not require any state money upfront. But it would add hotel, liquor and other surcharges at the mall. The most controversial provisions authorize tax deferments through changes in TIF districts and a complicated property tax mechanism known as the fiscal disparities pool.

The legislation has passed the Senate. Whether it can get enough support in the House and from Gov. Tim Pawlenty remains uncertain.

Unemployment rate exceeds 16 percent

The mall expansion would provide more than the 7,000 construction jobs and 7,000 permanent jobs, said Terry Brickman, manager of business development for PCL Construction Services, which built the Bloomington mall in the first place. The expansion would spark the entire state economy, he said, providing business for 200 subcontractors and 300 construction vendors and suppliers.

The mall would provide this spark at a time when it’s desperately needed, construction workers say. Unemployment among union construction workers is over 16 percent – three times worse than the state’s overall unemployment rate. In some trades, unemployment is over 25 percent. The Department of Employment and Economic Development says Minnesota lost 14,500 construction jobs in the past 24 months; the department projects the situation to get worse before it gets better.

“Any worse and it would be like the Great Depression,” said Local 87 member Brian Holmstrom, of Newport. Holmstrom, age 43, has been out of work for more than a year. “We’re moving into spring. Jobs normally pick up big time, but there’s no jobs to speak of,” he said.

“This is the worst it’s been,” said Jerry Lamb, age 60, of Montrose. The Local 851 member has been out of work since Dec. 6. “There’s been some bad times like this before, but it usually picked up. Hopefully this mall thing will go through and we’ll all get a job again.”

Michael Kuchta is communications coordinator for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters