Opinion: Props for Old Dominion's Construction Hire

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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)


On a cold December day in 2001, a construction accident threatened to delay the opening of Old Dominion's Ted Constant Center. A crane had collapsed as it hoisted a 55,000-pound steel truss.

No one was hurt, but the crane disintegrated and the truss, part of five intended to support the basketball arena's roof, was bent beyond repair.

ODU quickly hired Turner Construction to evaluate the situation, and it determined that S.B. Ballard Construction would be months late delivering the arena.

What Stephen Ballard did in response is just one example why ODU made the right call last week when it hired him to construct a new Foreman Field.

Ballard, an outspoken, hard-nosed and unconventional guy, rented a plane and flew to the Canam Steel plant in Point of Rocks, Md., carrying T-shirts, hats and a bag of $100 bills. He bought lunch for the entire crew there and told them he needed a truss right away to help build an arena in Virginia.

He spread out the hats, shirts and money on the table and asked for 15 volunteers, promising double time and a bonus of several hundred dollars apiece.

His volunteers pulled a truss out of a machine they were forming for the new Detroit Lions stadium and began working on a new truss for ODU. It was done the next day.

Later, when a subcontractor was late producing concrete planks, he rented a helicopter and flew to the concrete plant in Maryland. He had been assured that all was well, but discovered that a machine that produced the planks was broken.

Ballard arranged to have a critical machine part immediately flown in, and two days later the planks began to arrive in Norfolk.

The truss alone cost Ballard $146,000, but it allowed him to hand ODU the keys to a beautiful multipurpose, 8,600-seat arena two months early.

I would expect no less from Ballard when a new Foreman Field opens in August 2019. He clearly has the credentials to pull off a difficult, $55 million expansion in just nine months. And he has a ton of motivation.

Ballard is one of ODU's most prominent athletic boosters, and Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium bears his name. He can be seen before every home football game underneath a giant S.B. Ballard tent in the most prominent tailgate lot.

The last thing he would want is for fans, and for his friends, to be disappointed in his work. This is a legacy project for him.

Some surely will think that Ballard was hired because of his name and connections. Based on private conversations with ODU officials over the last couple of years, that's not the case.

All things being equal, officials confided to me that they would have preferred awarding this contract to someone unaffiliated with the university.

It was clear that Ballard didn't hold a lot of sway with ODU's Board of Visitors in 2016 when he, Clark-Nexsen Architects and AECOM spent $400,000 putting together a $124 million, unsolicited proposal to build a 30,000-seat stadium.

The board rejected his bid in a closed-door session without even bothering to read it.

Ballard told me days later that ODU made a business decision, and that's the risk you run when you make an unsolicited bid. No hard feelings, he said.

We don't know who else bid for the Foreman Field project because ODU hasn't yet released those documents. But from the Virginia Beach Boardwalk reconstruction to MacArthur Center, the Peter G. Decker Jr. cruise ship terminal, Sentara Norfolk Heart Hospital to schools all over the region, Ballard has a reputation for landing major projects and getting them done on time.

He will also build the Virginia Beach Arena, assuming the financing finally gets into place, as well as James Madison University's new 8,600-seat arena.

Ballard declined comment when I called him this week, other than to promise to talk to me in the coming weeks.

Regardless, it's pretty clear this will be one of the biggest challenges Ballard has faced.

ODU has pledged to spend no more than $55 million on the first phase of the renovation, and a number of industry officials familiar with the project have told me the school can't afford all it wants. Construction costs have escalated since the project was approved in 2016, and ODU has planned some pretty lush finishes for a mid-major football stadium.

Following the 2018 season, the east and west sides are to be torn down and replaced. The new stadium is to have a brick facade, an escalator, individual chair-back seats for 15,500 fans and elevated restrooms and concessions.

The 20,118-seat stadium would expand to about 23,000 seats and add a lot of creature comforts now lacking.

The problem here is that tearing down and rebuilding two sides of a stadium in just nine months is likely to require two separate crews working 14 to 16 hours per day. That means personnel costs will be far more expensive than they would be with a typical stadium project.

Ballard was hired as a "construction manager at risk," and that was again a smart move by ODU. That means, essentially, Ballard is taking on nearly all of the risk here.

During the design process, he will consult with Moseley and Populous Architects on construction costs. At each stage of design, ODU will approve plans and then Ballard will sign off on the cost of construction.

If the stadium goes over budget, it comes out of Ballard's wallet. There's no room for error in the stadium timeline, either, because ODU has no other facility in which to play.

If the stadium isn't ready when ODU opens against Norfolk State on Aug. 31, 2019, then Ballard surely will owe the school some heavy-duty penalties.

But don't expect that to happen. Ballard has shown he'll do what it takes to get a project done, even if it means getting on a plane with T-shirts, hats and cash.

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October 18, 2017


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