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EVEN WITHOUT MICRON, CONSTRUCTION'S GOING STRONG

The mothballing of Micron's massive chipmaking plant this year seemed to have the potential for undoing Utah's booming commercial construction business.

The project that had siphoned away much of the state's skilled construction labor was suddenly no more and the subsequent layoffs resurrected memories of the late-1980s when hundreds of workers were "sitting on the bench" waiting for a call to work.But the depressing scenario of mass unemployment hasn't materialized.

"Micron has been overblown," said Rob Moore, senior vice president of business development for Big D Construction, which had more than 400 workers at the Lehi construction site. "It's not so much the Micron project, but the market itself."

Nearly a third of the more than 4,000 workers who completed a shell of the $2.5 billion manufacturing site were from out of state and they have long since packed up and moved on. Most of the remaining Utah residents are gradually being absorbed into the state's robust construction market.

Moore said his company has been able to place idled foremen and other key managers alongside laborers in the trenches of the Utah Courts Complex being built in downtown Salt Lake City, while they await the start of other projects this summer.

"Things aren't quite back to normal," said Steve Richins, secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades Council, an organization of trade unions. "But there is enough going on that even without Micron we would have had a great construction year."

The American Stores building, the Courts Complex, the Deseret News Building, Gateway West building and the Ogden conference center are among the more obvious construction projects to which workers are returning.

And the pace shows no signs of slowing, with more than $2 billion in proposals now in the pipeline, ranging from the rebuilding of I-15 in Salt Lake County to the recent announcement of a new Mormon Church assembly hall north of Temple Square.

Added to the ambitious schedule of private construction is $344.5 million in projects either finished or near completion and another $180 million in the planning stages.

"We're confident we can put a lot of people back to work," said Alan S. Layton, president of Layton Construction, which had to lay off more than 200 workers when Micron announced its abrupt halt in February because of a depressed market for its computer memory chips.

Contractors and labor leaders agree that temporary layoffs notwithstanding, Micron's departure from the scene will bring some relief and stability to a construction market straining to keep up.

With the lag in processing building permits, the $500 million in construction completed at Micron will be officially logged in May and bring 1996 construction valuation to an estimated $1.3 billion - the first time the state has surpassed the billion-dollar mark.

Even without Micron, economists and industry officials predict the state could have surpassed the previous record of $783 million set in 1979 at the tail end of the energy boom. A national recession and double-digit mortgage rates slowed construction in the early 1980s.

The industry hit its worst downturn during 1986-89 when construction dropped 53 percent after a growth spurt in 1984-85.

The turnaround in the 1990s was spawned by an increase in population in the late 1980s. Firms attracted by Utah's low wages and quality of life were followed by their employees and people looking for work. The drop in interest rates unleashed a pent-up demand for housing.

Residential construction has soared along the Wasatch Front and in southwestern Utah since 1990, peaking last year with 21,558 units built over 12 months. According to economic theory, a housing boom is generally followed by a surge in commercial and industrial construction, which is what happened in Utah.

The growth in both residential and nonresidential building has turned construction into one of the hottest job sectors in the state, growing at an annual rate of about 10 percent.

But the upbeat numbers were creating a problem for contractors desperately searching for skilled labor to do the work, boosting wages to keep the craftsman they had and adjusting schedules to accommodate training of new hires.

Management and labor often blame each other's shortsightedness for the shortage. But they agree the lure of Micron's double shifts and overtime exacerbated the problem, forcing local contractors to go outside Utah for help.

With Micron on indefinite hold and the Salt Palace completed, the labor supply crisis has since eased.

"You couldn't find masons last year. Now they are around and the pricing is coming down, too," Moore said.