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April 25. 2013 12:00AM

NH firm wins contract to build $35M job center in Manchester after years-long fight

MANCHESTER - The U.S. Department of Labor has selected a Bedford-based construction company to build the state Job Corps Center, which had been at the center of a years-long battle involving state construction unions, nonunion contractors and their political supporters.

The Labor Department awarded Eckman Construction the contract to build the $35 million complex, which will be located off Dunbarton Road in the northwest corner of Manchester and will provide job training to dropouts and low-income young people.

Mark Walsh, Eckman's owner and chief executive, said he hopes the company will be able break ground on the project next month. "We're very pleased we've come this far, and we're anxious to get started," he said.

The process to get the state job center began more than 10 years ago. New Hampshire is one of the only states in the country without one of the federally funded training facilities.

Since 2009, the contract had been ensnared in a dispute over the inclusion of a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which outlines how much workers should be paid, the range of hours they should work and safety regulations.

The agreements are strongly backed by labor unions, and President Barack Obama in 2009 ordered that they apply to all large-scale federal construction projects.

Local building companies, in conjunction with the New Hampshire and Vermont Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, challenged the inclusion of a PLA for the Job Corps project, arguing that it would favor out-of-state companies, which are accustomed to working under such agreements. A large majority of New Hampshire contractors and construction workers are nonunion.

Following pressure from Republican members of the state's congressional delegation, the Department of Labor ultimately agreed in October to put the contract out to bid without the agreement.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who has been sharply critical of the PLA, praised the awarding of the contract to Eckman.

"My priority has been to ensure that a New Hampshire company could compete for this work on a level playing field. By removing an onerous federal requirement from this project, a local contractor has been able to successfully submit the most competitive bid," Ayotte said in a statement.

Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, said he was disappointed but not surprised that Eckman won the contract.

"I think we missed an opportunity to build a training center that would have provided for better pay and benefits than they're going to be paying on the job," he said.

Joe Casey, the head of the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, noted that the original PLA "would have guaranteed a New Hampshire workforce."

Walsh, the Eckman CEO, said he anticipated that many New Hampshire residents would work on the project. "We work with a lot of New Hampshire subcontractors," he said.

Eckman is one of the most active construction companies in the area, having built several municipal and college buildings, as well as the Elliot at River's Edge medical facility in Manchester.

Developer Dick Anagnost has chaired the Job Corps center task force since 2001, and he worked with Eckman on the River's Edge project.

"You couldn't have picked a finer company," he said.

Anagnost said the jobs center would be a great boost to the economy. In addition to the construction jobs, he said there would be 130 full-time employees at the site, and it would pump up to $10 million into the local economy. He noted that the curriculum at the center would focus on homeland security, given that the state has a nuclear plant, an international border, two airports and a naval port.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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