It's hard to imagine what Newark, NJ, looked like in the 1960s, when race riots and police brutality closed hundreds of businesses and left downtown in ruins. In the 1970s and 1980s, Newark continued its slide into violence and economic disparity with jobs leaving the downtown for the suburbs and the industrial base that existed turning into brownfields. Today’s Newark has experienced a second coming, a renaissance of sorts, a revitalization of its downtown with new shops, restaurants, bars and clubs, stadiums and theaters, in part thanks to the contribution of electrical contractors.

In the late 1990s, Newark began revitalizing its downtown area, giving opportunities to electrical contractors. Newark opened the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a 250,000-square-foot theater facility on a 12-acre site, in 1997. The center houses two theaters—the 2,750-seat Prudential Hall and the 514-seat Victoria Theater—a restaurant and a cafe.

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is just one part of more than $2 billion of current construction projects in Newark. Another development, the Prudential Center, is a $375 million stadium, which seats more than 17,500 for hockey and soccer games and many more for concerts.

Joe Stark, of Star-Lo Electric Inc., worked on the Prudential Center and said the project was worth $45 million in electrical work alone. His three companies, which pull in more than $100 million per year in business, won the negotiated bid and did all the electrical, communication and audio/video for the site.

“This is a phenomenal center,” Stark said. “The downtown area is going to come alive, and it has cleaned up. One should not be afraid to come to downtown Newark.”

Building a stadium in the heart of a city’s downtown area has many challenges, foremost among those is supervision.

“Supervision is the most important thing on the job. You have to make sure that the man who builds the building has the men and material gotten to him on a timely basis,” Stark said. “Local 164 helped with the project, and they did a great job.”

In a project of that size, with 150 men and women on the job site, coordination is vital.

“Communication is all-important,” Stark said. With workers on different levels wiring the scoreboard or the luxury boxes in opposite sections, running wire on one level or getting material from the on-site supply depot on the stadium floor, keeping everyone connected is important. To do that, “we had 100 radios on the job for 150 mechanics,” he said.

The Prudential Center has opened tremendous opportunities for Star-Lo Electric Inc. and Star-Lo Communications, Stark said. The company is bidding the training facility for Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, and it is working on the New York Jets’ and the New York Giants’ training facilities.

“Once we did one, they want us for others,” he said.

This success has not come easily for Stark, though. He had to crawl, walk and then run to get his foot in the door for these big projects.

“You can’t jump into it,” he said. “There is a progression from the smaller jobs to the larger.”

Big cities aren’t the only places electrical contractors can find downtown revitalization work. Smaller cities have opportunities, too. For eight months a year, the University of Illinois and its students boost the population and bring vitality to the east-central Illinois city of Champaign. The other four months of the year, Champaign is a sleepy prairie town with a slower lifestyle.

Even in this smaller Midwestern city, revitalization is happening at a feverish pace. Champaign’s downtown used to be a bustling agricultural center where corn, soybeans and cattle moved northward and westward to processing centers in Chicago and along the Mississippi River. With the advent of the interstate system in the 1950s, Champaign’s importance as a crossroads waned, and people bypassed the city on their way to other places. Its downtown suffered in the 1980s, and the city looked for ways to revitalize that area.

In 1992, the city of Champaign created the Downtown Area Comprehensive Plan, which has since been updated in 2003. These documents show Champaign has gradually revitalized through the help of loans, improved parking access, and financial support from both public and private redevelopment projects. People are drawn to the town’s university, a new technology park and affordable housing prices.

A high-density-leaning city council, a push to bring more business to the downtown and opportunities for mixed-use construction all have opened opportunities for electrical construction.

Scott Davis of T. A. Davis Inc. of Urbana, Champaign’s sister city, said it has changed greatly in the last few years.

Davis helped build One Main, a mixed-use commercial/residential design/build project in downtown Champaign. The project initially was worth $800,000 in electrical work. When all was said and done, it came in at $3 million.

“It was profitable work,” Davis said. “We had a great engineer, and the project was well thought out.”

Davis said there is much to consider when taking on a downtown revitalization project such as One Main in smaller, older downtowns.

“Outside utilities are old, so that is a challenge,” Davis said. In a downtown setting, utilities can be difficult to find and get to and require considerable updating. In the case of Champaign, the utilities are in need of serious renovation. According to the Downtown Comprehensive Plan Update 2003, “[one] limiting factor of future redevelopment of the Downtown could be the current capacity and condition of existing utilities.”

Davis also sees design/build work as providing the tools necessary for a successful project in downtown revitalization.

“You need to have all your ducks in a row in order to get the most efficient planning,” Davis said. With limited space in which to work, several trades vying for parking and material storage, and the day-to-day traffic in a downtown area, planning becomes key.

“You need to have all of this planned in your bid,” he said. “Coordination with the other trades and working with a good general contractor are important to a successful job.”

This spells opportunity for the electrical contracting industry. Champaign has completed work on One Main and has begun on Two Main, a second development in the downtown area.

With revitalization in downtown Champaign come more opportunities for electrical contractors. As new businesses, bars, restaurants and condos come to the area, buildings need to be built or refurbished, and if the city council is interested in building up, not out, that means more work for contractors downtown.

The West Coast is not immune to downtown revitalization, either. Portland, Ore., is another example of a city taking the initiative to rehabilitate its downtown and offer opportunities to electrical contractors. In 1988, Portland created the Vacant and Abandoned Buildings Task Force that set neighborhood revitalization as a high priority in the local government. Twenty years later, the fruits of that labor have come to harvest.

Portland’s downtown is once again a hub of activity. Compared to other cities, Portland’s revitalization has been substantial, said George Adams of EC Co., an electrical contractor from Portland.

“In the last couple of years in the Pearl district and the River-Place, there has been a huge turnaround,” Adams said.

“The changed face of Portland is significant. Where there once were run-down buildings,” Adams said, “it is truly the pearl of the city. It is all upscale now.” The riverfront also has changed from abandoned industrial sites to condos.

EC Co. has been involved in Portland’s revitalization by building an aerial tram for Oregon Health and Science University linking the riverfront with the main campus, constructing high-rise condo buildings, and the refurbishing of the old Meier & Frank building in downtown Portland when Macy’s bought it.

The historic Meier & Frank building, Adams noted, had significant value to Portland, but it came with difficulties for the electrical contractor. Built in 1857, and on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has been a mainstay of local Portland’s architectural history for 150 years. Macy’s purchased the first five floors and intended to keep the store open while renovations progressed. A hotel was being renovated on the upper floors with another set of construction crews on the work site, which added significant difficulties.

“They wanted the store open by Christmas, and we were able to do it in eight or 10 months,” Adams said.

It also proved a lesson in organization.

“Have the right team in place in field and project management who understand each other. Logistics and the impacts with traffic and keeping the store open for parts of the renovations make good communication with the customer vital,” Adams said.

“Lastly, make sure vendor partnering is solid and after-hour delivery is discussed up-front in preplanning,” he said.

The key to success is communication on all sides, with your team, the owner, your general contractor and your employees. Stay in the loop.

Downtown revitalization is happening across the country as cities realize people will live where they work, if what they live next to has a pulse. There are plenty of opportunities for electrical contractors downtown, from mixed-use condos to multimillion-dollar professional sports arenas, if contractors know where to look and how to bid correctly. There also are plenty of challenges, too.

KOHMSTEDT, based in the Washington, D.C., area, works in government affairs for the National Electrical Contractors Association. He can be reached at jjk@necanet.org.