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Marathon efforts employed to finish WOW

Construction crews reap financial rewards from the long, drawn-out megaproject

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After months of continuous, 24-hour work shifts, crews appear to have met Johnny Morris’ Sept. 22 deadline for the reopening of Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium.

Since February, about 500 construction workers and craftsmen have been on site daily, totaling at least 150,000 man hours, said Frank Schaffer II, project manager for general contractor Nabholz Corp. Crews were working right up to the morning of the ribbon-cutting gala Sept. 20.

“It’s done,” Schaffer said, noting Arkansas-based Nabholz was hired in January to meet Morris’ September goal. “The amount of work that gets accomplished in a given day would blow your mind with the high-quality (subcontractors) that we’ve got.”

The previous general contractor, Baltimore-based Whiting Turner Contracting Co., had been on the job since at least 2009. Schaffer said Nabholz employed about 40 subcontractors this year.

When Springfield Business Journal toured the conservation-themed destination Sept. 19, hundreds of workers were hanging pictures on walls, installing glass displays, laying flooring and painting murals.

Representatives from Springfield architecture firm Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Inc. came through that afternoon, identifying last-minute changes, Schaffer said. As of Sept. 21, only 50 crewmembers were still on the site, he said.

Joplin Industrial Electric Co. Inc. committed 50 employees to WOW and Bass Pro Shops beginning in January, handling power and lighting work, said President Jeff Cartright.

“They worked seven days a week; 10 hours a day,” he said.

Completing the project on time was critical to everyone involved, Cartright said.

“Everything is ‘now.’ It doesn’t matter the cost,” Cartright said. “The time frame was probably the biggest challenge. Last Thursday through Sunday, I know about 15 guys worked a 21-hour shift, to get stuff done.”

Joplin Industrial billed the project based on the materials used and the hours worked, Cartright said, noting Bass Pro founder Morris often altered the plans.

“Every time he goes in, he was changing and adding,” Cartright said.

Adam and Aaron Wolken began painting murals at Bass Pro stores around the country six years ago, and later transitioned to the WOW project. They spent nearly 5,000 hours on the African savanna room exhibit alone.

Bass Pro also gave many hours of employee time to WOW, everything from in-house craftsmen to event staff, as in-kind donations, said Bass Pro spokesman Jack Wlezien.

Economic impact
The not-for-profit museum originally opened in 2001 as a 92,000-square-foot stand-alone building.

The renovations have provided work for construction crews, artists, craftsmen and animal experts for nearly a decade, even though it has been closed to the public since December 2007. It is now 350,000 square feet and connected to Bass Pro’s 500,000-square-foot Outdoor World store.

Performance Contracting Inc. worked on WOW about four years ago, providing interior wall construction and exterior facade work for the underwater shipwreck, swamp and shark tank exhibits. The company was called back to the site in April to work on displays, a theater and other aspects of the attraction, said PCI project manager Bryce Suppes. The company also set up scaffolding for other contractors.

“We’ve had about 50 guys during the day and 12 at night,” Suppes said, adding his crews also worked seven days a week with 10-hour shifts, trying to keep up with project changes. “We’ve all been going crazy over there trying to get ready for the opening.”

The timeline was difficult to hit, Suppes said, but leadership played a key role.

“Johnny Morris is great to work with and Nabholz. Their direction made everything a lot easier than what it could have been,” he said. “It’s incredible the amount of work that got done in a short amount of time.”

PCI billed WOW monthly for man-hours, with special rates for Saturdays and overtime.

“Being employed for that long of a time, getting that many hours, it’s really life-changing for a lot of people that worked on the project,” Suppes said. “Sometimes there aren’t any other jobs in the area. There’s usually jobs going on at Bass Pro, which has kept people employed in the area.”

After working with Nabholz at Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake, Stoneridge Flooring Design was hired to install tile, hardwood flooring and carpeting at WOW. A big task was placing 2,200 square feet of black granite behind the large waterfall on the east exterior wall in four days, said Stoneridge co-owner David Beebe.

Stoneridge put 25-35 people on evening shifts to avoid overlapping with other subcontractors.

“The number of men and women working in that building at a given time, and to organize that chaos, that’s an interesting thing to watch and that takes some talent,” Beebe said.

The unique project has its perks, Beebe said, noting crews observed Kevin Costner’s arrival for the grand opening gala. They also had fun with the detail added to the event attended by two former presidents, other dignitaries and legends in fishing, hunting and racing.

“We rolled out the red carpet – Bass Pro style – camo down the middle and red carpet down the sides,” he said.

Springfield Glass Co. LLC owner Grant Miller said his company came on the project about a month ago, adding glass in front of exhibits, including one of two free-admission rooms depicting Bass Pro’s history. The large size of the tempered panes was unusual for Springfield Glass – up to 7 feet wide and 12 feet tall. His crews drove to out-of-state suppliers to pick up panes almost daily.

“There was not time to wait for the normal delivery routes,” he said.

More to come
Bass Pro’s Wlezien said the WOW project largely was funded by the Johnny Morris Foundation, but he declined to disclose WOW’s total cost or Morris’ financial contributions. He said the cost and funding structure were similar to the Georgia Aquarium, where The Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus contributed $250 million and corporations donated $40 million to its construction in 2005.

All of the contractors interviewed for this story declined to disclose the income they’ve generated from the WOW project, but indicated they’d be back on site for smaller construction jobs in the near future.

Miller said his glass crew worked on sea lion and penguin exhibits that are not yet open to the public. Joplin Industrial’s Cartright said the Antarctica-themed portion of the aquarium does not have animals yet.

“The penguins won’t be there until around February,” he said. “There will be a penguin exhibit on the first and second floor. It’ll have tubes that the penguins will slide in and all kinds of stuff.”

A steel structure is currently being built to the north side of the building for the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, Schaffer said, but that is scheduled for a later date and not part of his company’s deadline.


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