Construction down, but builders still optimistic

Sharp drops in this year's residential building permits indicate diminished growth for nearly all surrounding communities, with only Harlem and Grovetown showing bright spots.

The NUMBERS

The Augusta License and Inspection Department issued 391 residential building permits from Jan. 1 to Nov. 11 in 2007. During the same time this year, that figure dropped to 151.

Though Columbia County issued more overall building permits, it experienced a sharper decrease than Richmond County when compared with the year before. There were 825 permits issued from January to October in 2007. Through October of this year, the county has issued 556.

The decline is not as dramatic in Aiken County. The number there dropped from 518 during January to October 2007 to 366 during the same period this year.

North Augusta has issued 84 building permits so far this year, down from 209 last year.

During fiscal year 2008, which runs July to June, the city of Aiken issued 411 single-family residential building permits. It issued 577 during fiscal year 2007.

Through October, Harlem actually had a slight increase in building permits compared with last year, rising three for a total of 32.

GROVETOWN

As of Tuesday, Grovetown has issued 237 residential building permits, nearly 90 more than Augusta.

"What's going on in Grovetown, a city of about 10,000, compared to all of Richmond County, with its population of 200,000 or better, is incredible," said Richard Harmon, Columbia County's director of Building, Commercial and Engineering Services.

The city is closing in on last year's 274 mark.

"We've had a lot of growth with citizens from Fort Gordon," Grovetown Planning Director Connie Smith said. "We also have a lot of retired people coming here as well as young couples."

COULD BE WORSE

Though growth has slowed, North Augusta City Administrator Sam Bennett said institutions such as Fort Gordon, Savannah River Site and the medical community have insulated the area.

"We've got some really good sectors to keep our economy moving ahead," Mr. Bennett said. "We are not immune from a downturn, but we can certainly weather it a lot better that other communities can."

SPEC HOUSES

Denise Fincher, the office manager of Aiken County's planning and development department, said much of the decreases this year can be attributed to builders taking fewer chances on spec housing, homes constructed to be sold at a later time.

"This year, they're doing a minimum of one spec house, instead of 10 or 20," Ms. Fincher said.

The struggles of the banking and housing industries have created a downturn in sales, she said.

"There are so many houses that are just sitting there," Ms. Fincher said.

Mr. Harmon agrees. "Building has come to a halt," he said.

THE OUTLOOK

Most officials are confident the building and housing industry will recover.

"The numbers are down, but with our standard of living and our school system, it's a lot better than most everyone else around us," Mr. Harmon said.

Mr. Bennett said the outlook might improve as early as the first few months of next year.

"My hope is that as things settle down in the first quarter (of 2009) nationally, that folks will feel a little more comfortable about where we're at locally," he said.