The new Blain’s Farm and Fleet store in Walker, Michigan is the standard Blain’s prototype that includes retail space and an auto service center, but the construction experience was anything but standard. The project broke ground according to plan in December 2019 which is not the most opportune time to begin construction in Michigan, but cold weather soon became the least of the team’s concerns. In April 2020, work was halted by executive order from Michigan Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as part of her pandemic mitigation plan. The balance of the project was like an unchoreographed ballet with relentless focus and energy despite construction challenges, uncertain outcomes, and an unprecedented cast of performers.

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This Project was Anything but Business as Usual.

The project involved new construction of a pre-engineered metal building with structural pre-cast concrete elements on a 14-acre site. The 40-week schedule had a non-negotiable completion date of October 15, 2020 tied to public grand opening events scheduled prior to the 2020 holiday season. In typical circumstances, this project was certainly doable.

In, 2020 however, it became seemingly impossible. Sara Iverson Smith, Blain’s Director of Facilities, Real Estate, and Construction had this to say about the scope of the challenges; “Never in our decades of experience, between our senior PM, myself, and our architect, have we had so many obstacles to overcome.” Smith underscored the complexity by adding “last I checked, there were 52 executive orders we had to navigate through.” The first order came about 3 months into the project when the new construction project was deemed non-essential, even though Blain’s Farm and Fleet qualifies as an essential business.

At the time of the shutdown, the building was wide open to the elements, but we successfully worked with our governmental partners to secure the building. The Blain’s and Veneklasen leadership teams had to learn about government orders, engage local and state government officials, understand CISA guidelines, CDC recommendations, and develop process and cleaning protocols that would allow Blain’s to protect their asset and keep the project on track. When asked about the role of the general contractor in such a fluid situation Smith said “Without a good partner like Veneklasen Construction, I’m confident the store would not have opened on time. They kept things on track and calm in a country that was anything but calm.”

Tough Conditions. Tougher GC.

The General Contractor’s role immediately became multi-faceted and unpredictable, with an urgency fueled by an unwavering commitment to the safety and health of everyone on the jobsite and deep empathy for their client’s time-sensitive goals. Veneklasen Project Manager, Nick Cadarette and Site Superintendent, Jake Klein collaborated even more actively than normal to creatively overcome obstacles.

  • They leveraged Veneklasen’s self-managed trades team when sub-contractors became unavailable due to pandemic related labor shortages. At times, the entire Veneklasen Field Crew Team was actively working on this project.
  • They partnered to become the eyes and ears of the client and architecture/engineering team who couldn’t be onsite due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and time constraints.
  • They collaborated with MDOT, City of Grand Rapids, and City of Walker officials to understand and abide by new ordinances and restrictions and reassure everyone involved that safety was our priority.
  • They leveraged their deep design-build experience to proactively recommend design and building approaches that eliminated minor slow-downs and improved outcomes.
  • They communicated constantly using innovative tools to keep all parties informed and aware of what was going well and what wasn’t, and brought people together to problem-solve, keep things moving, and optimize the confidence and trust of everyone on the team.
  • They added daily photos, daily logs, communication of new safety criteria with PPE requirements, control of site access with QR code entry, and monthly safety inspections to standard quality procedures.

The Community Responds

The outcome of this often-unorthodox project is a beautiful new building, housing an essential business that has quickly become an important partner to the community after opening – on schedule – in October, 2020. City of Walker Mayor, Gary Carey, Jr had this to say about the construction project and its impact on the community “I appreciate the all-hands-on-deck approach in trying to get the store open as quickly as possible… I also want to recognize the proactive efforts you have made with your employees, contractors, and work environment in mitigating as much risk as possible. You are representative of everything that is right about community-based businesses during these trying times.”

At the store’s pandemic-era grand opening, Blain’s Farm and Fleet CEO and Owner, Jane Blain Gilbertson asked and answered the question “Who is crazy enough to open a new store in a pandemic? We are!” She reflected on her company’s construction experience saying “Everyone was navigating uncharted waters. I am extremely pleased that despite the challenges our teams, our partners, and this great community was navigating in those early days of COVID, we were able to open on time and on budget. We are now operating as the type of essential asset to the community that we envisioned.” The investment and effort to open the Walker, Michigan store is paying off for the community and for Blain’s. The Veneklasen Construction team is proud of our role in orchestrating the often messy, but beautifully intricate dance that made it possible.

About the client:

Blain’s Farm and Fleet is a family-owned retailer with 43 “Modern General Stores™” in 4 Midwest states. The company, founded in Janesville, WI in 1955, entered Michigan in 2018 as the most recent phase of an aggressive expansion plan. The Walker, MI store is located in the Standale Crossings commercial development.