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Kissimmee River a Quinn-tessential Job for Contractor

Tue April 10, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks

After retiring from Sears Roebuck where she was a store manager for 19 years, Janet Quinn founded her own construction business.

The Tippah, Miss.-based Quinn Contracting Inc., specializes in natural resource conservation projects, including the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, a job the company started in May 2006.

The Kissimmee River Restoration Project was authorized by Congress in the 1992 Water Resource Development Act and will restore more than 40 sq. mi. (104 sq km) of river/flood plain ecosystem, including 43 mi. (69 km) of meandering river channel and 27,000 acres (11,000 ha) of wetlands. The Kissimmee River and its flood plain, along with the Upper Chain of Lakes, forms the headwaters of the greater Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades ecosystem.

Historically, the river meandered approximately 103 mi. (166 km) from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee, through a 1- to 2-mi. (1.6 to 3.2 km) wide flood plain.

The project is a joint partnership with the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Quinn is the prime contractor for the current phase of the project, which includes backfilling approximately 2 mi. (3.2 km) of the C-38 canal. Her husband, David Quinn, is the project manager for that job.

"Our family had been in construction," said Janet, who started the company in 1991. "David had been in construction. I had retired from Sears Roebuck and had the ability on the paperwork, doing estimates and whatever general work needs to be done. We have a son and a daughter and my son loved the construction business, too, and has done that since he was in high school. We thought this would be a good family business. I retired from Sears and had time on my hands — I was still a young lady. I wanted something to do."

Janet has found plenty to do in the last 16 years. The company recently finished two projects for the Corps of Engineers' Vicksburg office and, in addition to the Kissimmee River work, she's overseeing a project in northern Mississippi for the Corps of Engineers.

"We're kind of spread out right now," she said, adding that the company employs 17 people, 12 in Tippah and five in Kissimmee.

As is turns out, her experience with paperwork has proven beneficial to the company's success.

"I'd say 98 percent of our work is federal work," Janet said. "That's what we started with. We like that and we can do the quality work they want. We do Mississippi Soil and Water work. We do work for the city of Tupelo. We do environmental erosion control, grading and drainage. We have done a project with the Memphis Corps of Engineers. That's our basic stuff. The government really stresses quality in their work and you know the government paperwork. That is really, really, really a challenge every day."

Being a woman-owned business in the male dominated construction world has provided some other challenges and an education for Janet.

"It's a man's world as far as the competition," she said. "Practically all of the jobs we've gotten have been bid projects. We have to be pretty sharp to catch some of the good ones."

She said her biggest challenge is keeping up with the day-to-day aspects of the job.

"It's everyday challenges," Janet said. "You can't do just one thing. This morning I've got about 10 different things going on at one time, trying to get all the specifications and progress charts ready for a new project we're starting. I'm learning something new every day about the business. It's still very, very, very competitive. There's new companies starting everyday."

Janet said the company has a long-standing commitment to safety and quality, which helps distinguish them from the competition.

"From day one, we have stressed safety and quality," Janet said. "I think if you talk to any of the Corps people we have worked for, you'll see safety and quality are our main goals. We have not had an accident on any of our projects in 16 years."

Quinn Contracting has won several safety awards in Mississippi and is nominated for a safety award for its work on the Kissimmee project.

"We've run in excess of 100,000 man hours without a lost-time accident," David said. "We're looking to try to get the Contractor of the Year down here for this project. They're pleased with our work. We've had a lot of people come and go, but the first thing we look at is safety."

Janet said when the Kissimmee contract went out for bid, she liked "the sound of it" and the company submitted the winning bid, earning a $27.5 million contract.

"We are dirt movers and that's how we got it." Janet said. "All the time I'm looking for work in the different Corps districts."

David said the Florida job offered a little something new for the company.

"It's a unique thing down here for us," he said. "We've never worked this far away from the house. We're backfilling the C-38 canal, which was a dredge canal. It involved dredging an existing oxbow [a U-shaped bend in a waterway], cutting about a 45-foot gap above our own operation where water should go through that gap and not flood us where we're backfilling."

David said the job calls for moving approximately 4 million cu. yds. (3 million cu m) of dirt.

Spoil banks composed of excavated sand and shell from the original channelization will provide some of the backfill. Another component is to modify the timing of water inflows to the river from the upper Kissimmee lakes by allowing water levels to rise 1 ft. (0.3 m) higher than is currently allowed.

According to the Corps, some positive changes have already been observed as a result of earlier phases of the project. Sandbars and sandy bottoms are signs of the improvement in the river's hydrology. In formerly isolated sections of the river, oxbows are flowing again. Emergent and shoreline vegetation has reappeared and is thriving and waterfowl are returning. There's also been an improvement in water quality and the project has reestablished the physical form of the river, replacing the channelized sections.

David said they're using 10 trucks, two trackhoes, a motorgrader, three dozers and a 345 excavator for the job. All the equipment is Caterpillar and leased from Jacksonville-based Ring Power Corporation.

"They're an excellent equipment dealer," David said. "They don't leave you hanging. If we need something, we call them and they are right out here with it."

There also are several subcontractors onsite, including Faulkner, Miss.-based Hill Brothers Construction, which is handling the dirt hauling, and dredging contractor Jahna out of Lake Wales, Fla.

Currently, the project is on schedule for completion in October.

"We had a problem with the dredging operation, but that's normal," David said. "The main challenge is not to get the turbidity too high in the river when you're dumping dirt in the river. We have a [darn] good dirt foreman down here and he's been in the business for a long time so we don't have many problems. About another month and we'll be headed downhill. We'll be through in October. That's the completion date and it's going to take us until then."

Once the job is done, David said he believes the area will see a major increase in pleasure activities.

"Boating, fishing, the wildlife that is going to come back in here," he said. "Of course now there's a world of alligators in here. You wouldn't believe the alligators that are here. There are some pretty good size alligators, probably 15, 20 feet. We just stay away from them. I'm sure the fishing is going to benefit. What was here before is going to come back. That's the beneficial part."

Erin Duffy, a project engineer of the Corps who is overseeing construction for this contract, also sees the environmental advantages to the project.

"It's going to restore a lot of the natural vegetation and the fish and wildlife," Duffy said. "We've already done part of the backfill about five years ago and it's thriving. We hope this will achieve the same thing within a few years of being completely backfilled."

David said there are approximately 20 people working regularly on the project and that number sometimes jumps to 40 depending on what needs to be done. He said approximately 99 percent of those are local people.

"We didn't bring anybody down here but a couple of superintendents," he said.

In addition to the backfill work, David said there were three sheet piling structures in the river they had to remove. They also hired a subcontractor for some bridge work.

"We had a subcontractor come in and build a couple of bridges for us because of the location of the dirt and where it has to be hauled," David said. "We also used a longstick and a dredge, but the dredge was only here about six weeks. We did use the longstick in a couple of places."

At this point, "everything is good, but call me next week and I might tell you something different," David said with a laugh.

Duffy said she's not expecting any future problems mainly because of Quinn's performance to date.

"They're proactive in everything we've dealt with so far," Duffy said. "They go out there and they're getting the job done. If they see a problem, they come to us well in advance so if we have to do any changes to the contract we have enough time to get those things done, hopefully squash it before it becomes a huge issue."

Though this contract has an October completion date, the full restoration project isn't scheduled to be complete until 2012. Based on 1997 estimates, total cost of the restoration project is $414 million, which will be split evenly by the state of Florida and the federal government.

As part of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, between 1962 and 1971, the Kissimmee River and its flood plain were channelized and transformed into a 30-ft. (9.1 m) central drainage canal to provide an outlet for draining flood waters from the developing upper Kissimmee lakes basin and provide flood protection for land adjacent to the river. Because flood protection is the primary constraint for the project, only approximately 22 of 56 mi. (35 of 90 km) of flood control canal will be backfilled.

"There are plans to continue up the river," David said. "When our contract is over with, the Corps of Engineers plans to let another job adjacent to this one that will tie into this and continue up the river."

So will Quinn Contracting bid for that job?

"Oh yeah," David said. "We're hoping we can get it, but you know how this business works. There's always somebody who thinks they can do it cheaper. But we're going to take a pop at it."

Alligators and all. CEG

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