Spence Brothers Construction lands $19.3 FishPass contract among national competition

The first-ever $19.3 million, Traverse City-based FishPass contract awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers singled out a fourth-generation, local company among a host of national competitors.

Weather depending, Spence Brothers Construction could shortly begin the two-year project, which replaces Traverse City’s Union Street Dam with a research center, naturalistic river channel and an improved barrier to remove invasive fish species.

FishPass is the final phase of the Boardman River Ecosystem Restoration Project – which primarily is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – and is expected to have a positive impact on 30 key fish species in the Boardman River and the Grand Traverse Bay.

Union Street Dam is the last of four 19th century, power-producing dams to be removed from the Boardman River, a 36-mile waterway that originates near Kalkaska and supports up to 160 miles of native cold-water fisheries habitat and 250 acres of wetlands, according to the Boardman River Watershed Prosperity Plan.

Spence Brothers Construction’s Vice President Bob Spence III recently spoke with TCBN about the company’s history and involvement with FishPass. Some of Spence’s comments were edited for clarity.

TCBN: Tell us about your company. 

SPENCE: I’m the fourth generation. The company started in 1891 and was incorporated in 1893. My great-grandfather and his brother came over from Scotland. There was a big fire in Saginaw and my grandfather sent word to his brothers that there was a lot of work and so they got started rebuilding homes.

Today, we are construction managers and general contractors, which means that we are the lead contractor. But we also are subcontractors and we perform carpentry and concrete work. We have offices in Ann Arbor, Saginaw and Traverse City. We’ve been in Traverse City since 1999. We’ve always worked all around the state and have about 300 employees in northern Michigan.

TCBN: What are some landmark northern Michigan projects?

 SPENCE: We’ve done a lot of work for Interlochen Center for the Arts, such as their music building, which is a $20 million job. We did their recreational building, which is about $8 million. We’re doing their dance building and dorms for them right now. At Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), we did the Dennos Museum’s recent addition and renovation. We just finished NMC’s West Hall and their dorms. We do a ton of hospital work as well. We did Headlands International Dark Sky Park up by Mackinaw City. We have also worked on the casinos in Petoskey and Manistee.

TCBN: Why did you get chosen for FishPass?

SPENCE: Well, that would be a question to ask the Army Corps of Engineers (laughs.) Our competition was basically national firms, so it’s nice that a local firm with local people working for them was able to get the job. We’ve got for the most part all local subs. And, as far as why are we the best, we’ve got a good track record with infrastructure projects. We do a lot of water and wastewater treatment plant work. So, this is right up our alley. I live about six blocks from the job and our office is on Hastings Street.

TCBN: How does FishPass compare to other projects your company has completed?

SPENCE: It is a big job for northern Michigan. It is about $20 million and those don’t come around that often up here. But we have done a number of projects that size up here. And we’ve done work downstate — four times that size. But FishPass is a large, multi-phased project that is going to be challenging and that’s why we like it. It’s not some cookie-cutter office building. It’s an infrastructure project with lots of moving pieces.

TCBN: Do you expect to hire more staff?

SPENCE: There’s a lot of concrete work so we’re going to have to expand a little bit on our concrete crews. We’re busy everywhere right now. We’re either going to have to add more northern Michigan concrete guys or bring them from downstate.

TCBN: Do you think FishPass will lead to bigger projects?

SPENCE: We already do a lot of large projects; I don’t think that large projects are necessarily better. We’ll do projects for established customers that are $500 jobs. They will call us up and we will run over and do half a day’s work with a couple of guys. We also do a lot of maintenance-type work. Will it lead to bigger jobs? It might, as far as Corps of Engineers’ work. I don’t know, but that’s not why we went after it. It’s not going to change the way we do business and the type of business that we do. There’s not much dam work in Traverse City. Maybe it will open our eyes to the fact that we should be looking for more work like this. If this project wasn’t in northern Michigan, we wouldn’t have pursued it.

TCBN: What’s the timeline?

SPENCE: We’re working on that right now. We’ve got a couple years to do it, but we’re building the schedule right now. We are always looking to finish earlier than the completion date. We just got the notice to proceed last week so we’re still getting into assigning contracts for subcontractors and getting started on the shop drawing process and procurement.

TCBN: Has COVID-19 affected workflow?

SPENCE: For us, it has not. Once we get started over there, it’ll be hard to tell because you never know what circumstances you might be in or you’re going to be in tomorrow. This could be one of the only jobs going on in the area. A year from now, we’ll have plenty of resources available to contribute towards it, but before the pandemic there was such a labor shortage that it had been hard to really get a good schedule together because there just weren’t enough people. So, with COVID potentially taking a hit out of the workload that’s out there and available, this project will be consistent from early spring for another year and a half. Hopefully, it’ll be a good thing for us.

TCBN: Is there a project/job you would ever turn down? Or not bid on?

SPENCE: If it’s up here and we’ve got people, which is basically everywhere from Ludington to Marquette, we’ve got the ability to perform small work. It’s not a size thing; we actually have done a couple of residential projects recently. I guess it would be on a case-by-case basis. We try to work for good owners. We hesitate on working for outer region developers or construction managers mainly because we don’t know them. You don’t stick around in business for over 125 years because you take risky work.

TCBN: Where do you see the company in five years?

SPENCE: I like the place that we’re in right now. As far as the blend of work, doing small work for a lot of good established clients and doing large work for good established clients.

TCBN: What is it like working in a family business? Is there any head-butting?

SPENCE: Surprisingly, there’s not much head-butting that goes on. When it comes to company culture, my dad, my uncles and my grandfather have raised us all in the same manner. All of us have the same story, basically what they had to go through to get to where we are right now.

TCBN: Will Spence Brothers still be here 100 years from now?

SPENCE: Yeah, I can’t see why not. There are a couple of younger fifth generation members that are kicking around in high school. Even though there might not be as many Spences involved as there are now, Spence Brothers will still be around.