by Danae Tinsley
Back in January of 2019, when JCJ Architecture was awarded the expansion project at FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Mich., the world was a different place. Our client’s goals for their project did not include flexibility to accommodate social distancing. The construction schedule was achievable at 18 months and there was sufficient labor available to get the project built. Now in August of 2021, we are finally opening this Four Diamond hotel with a Wine Spectator award-winning fine dining restaurant, lobby bar, high limits gaming, lounge, and coffee shop.
While we are all experiencing COVID fatigue after 18 months of quarantine and mask wearing, the hospitality industry reached COVID exhaustion in the early days of the pandemic. Like many properties, FireKeepers was shut down for six weeks. During that time, construction was also paused. What we have observed is that, on the patron side, the shutdown led to pent up demand, and on the construction side, a six-week construction pause did not translate into a six-week schedule extension.
As customers and guests returned to Firekeepers, they wore masks and socially distanced. Slot machines were taken out of service; table games had limited players. Hotel guest rooms were cleaned differently, buffets were closed, and restaurants reduced seating capacity. Guests were happy to return to casinos and hotels after weeks at home. In spite of restrictions, pent up demand yielded higher profit. This was all good news for the owner.
If only addressing COVID on a job site was as manageable as it was inside the property. Construction sites have been transformed. There are hand-washing stations on the job site and multiple hand sanitizer dispensers per floor. Workers who cannot pass daily screening are not permitted on site. Tasks are scheduled to minimize the concentration of workers in a single location. While these are all positive improvements, they do not come without a cost, and that cost is time, money and manpower.
Material has become more expensive – anyone who has tried to purchase a two-by-four at their local hardware store knows this first-hand. Getting material from overseas is taking much longer – think lighting components coming from China experiencing an extended stay in U.S. Customs. The labor force seems to have dried up. While many of us have been able to seamlessly transfer to working from home, tile, millwork and wallcovering cannot be installed from home. The labor force that the industry depends on faces the same challenges of home-schooling children, compromised immune systems, and a general insecurity of being out in a pre-vaccine world. So time, money and manpower, the three pillars of construction, have all been impacted.
As we approach the opening of this amazing project, this project team feels that overcoming these obstacles was not a small feat. We will celebrate this one in a big way and I hope that other projects that have been impacted are able to do the same. Let’s keep pushing and implement the positive changes on future projects.
Danae Tinsley is an associate and project manager at JCJ Architecture.