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BUILDING BOOM FUELS DEMAND FOR CRANES // Want a lift? Book ahead

Tampa Bay area skylines are swarming with swiveling construction cranes, but builders are struggling to get enough of the multistory metallic monsters to keep shuttling steel and concrete to their high-rises.

Just ask Opus South Corp., developers of the 29-story 400 Beach Drive condominium project in St. Petersburg and the 25-story Water's Edge condo tower in downtown Clearwater.

Used to be you could get a big crane with about a month's notice. A dozen trucks would haul the pieces to your building site for quick assembly. These days you have to get in line, or risk having nothing to hoist your slabs and girders into place. When you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on condo towers, that just won't do.

"With tower cranes right now you have to make reservations four to six months ahead of time," said Opus project manager Joe Ramsey, who scurried to find a crane for the Clearwater high-rise after the first rental company turned him down.

First came the shortages of steel, concrete and skilled workers. Now cranes have joined the list of construction essentials stressed by the real estate bonanza.

Shortages afflict all types of cranes, but the worst hit seem to be tower cranes, the steel lattice rigs known as "hammerheads" because their vertical towers are topped by horizontal arms. The cranes contain a nautical-sounding array of pieces like booms, jibs and hoists. The operator sits in a cabin hundreds of feet off the ground.

"Florida is crazy in construction," said Tim Mairn, a Tampa salesman with Morrow Equipment Co., North America's biggest supplier of the skyscraper-sized cranes. "They're all condos that are keeping us going."

With supply and demand for cranes out of whack, rental rates the past year have crept up about 10 percent, triple the rate of inflation. Opus is paying Morrow about $35,000 a month for the rental, far below the cost of building materials and labor, but still expensive.

"Ten percent a year is a pretty big number," said Opus vice president Jerry Shaw, facing a $400,000-plus bill for a 12- to 14-month rental.

As exclusive supplier of German-made Liebherr cranes, Morrow has also outfitted downtown Tampa's 380-unit SkyPoint condo tower and Tampa General Hospital. For stabilization, such large towers are typically anchored by giant bolts into concrete pads that weigh more than 100 tons.

The mostly foreign crane makers labor to keep up with demand, not just in the United States and Europe, but in the Persian Gulf, India and China. Japanese crane manufacturer Tadano Ltd. announced latest sales were up 42 percent, with most orders coming from the United States and Europe.

"We've tried to buy as many as we can to put in our fleet. Demand is so great for any size crane our fleet is close to maximum utilization," Morrow marketing director Gary Vosper said Tuesday from the company's headquarters in Salem, Ore.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater don't approach the high-rise construction density of Miami, where more than 100 condo projects have transformed the Miami-Dade County landscape into a tangle of towers.

But with about 25 condo projects pegged for central Tampa alone, including the 52-story Trump Tower Tampa, crane leasing companies can never rest. "We turn work away every day," said Kevin Willis of Sims Crane & Equipment Co., providing cranes for condo projects in Tampa's Channel district. "It's been going wild for last couple years."

The shortage is bringing new players into the market, the most recent being AmQuip, a Philadelphia company that opened a depot in Tampa to serve all of Florida.

Calling themselves "The Crane People," AmQuip sells itself as a provider of "safer, newer and better" cranes to meet Florida's "tough weather and building conditions."

While acknowledging the paucity of cranes, Opus, the Pinellas County condo builder, suggested it had bigger worries. Steel and concrete costs have been busting the bank, and quality skilled labor is thin on the ground.

Said Shaw, the Opus vice president: "Compared to everything else I wouldn't say cranes are our biggest problem right now."

A CLUSTER OF CRANES

Five cranes are being used to erect these structures in downtown St. Petersburg:

1. 400 Beach Drive condo

2, 3. Grand Bohemian Hotel and Residence

4. USF St. Petersburg Parking Center

5. All Children's Hospital

Source: ESRI, TeleAtlas

Nine cranes are being used to erect these structures in Tampa's Channel District:

1, 2. Towers of Channelside

3, 4. The Place at Channelside

5, 6. Ventana

7, 8. 9. Grand Central at Kennedy

Source: ESRI, TeleAtlas

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