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July 2020

Walsh Investment Group's president sees P3 opportunity in post-pandemic world

ARTICLE SOURCE: Inframation News

Founded in 1898, Walsh Group has become known for expanding its construction practice into new sectors. In 2020, it faces unprecedented uncertainty due to COVID-19. States and cities are now being confronted with the reality that, as infrastructure needs remain, the means to pay for it is eroding as COVID-19 has triggered a massive loss of tax revenues.

Newly minted Walsh Investment Group President Greg Ciambrone, in an interview with Inframation's Eugene Gilliam, views this as a blip at this point, and expects areas such as broadband, healthcare and resiliency projects to get plenty of attention for P3s in the coming months, particularly since the infrastructure gaps will remain.

“As the trajectory of the virus has stabilized or declined in some areas and increased in others, there remain a lot of unknowns,” Ciambrone said in an interview with Inframation. “Given this uncertainty, it is more likely than not that many public agencies will continue to have their finger on the pause button. The good news is the pause will be temporary as inherent infrastructure needs will not go away and must be addressed.”

The Chicago-based Walsh traces its construction roots to the late 19th century, but in the last 40 years has expanded geographically, as well as investing in its own projects. The company’s core business lines are building, transportation and water/wastewater. Overall, Walsh is slated to generate in excess of $5 billion in revenues in 2020, said Ciambrone.

Ciambrone has seen every angle of the business during his 22-year tenor at the business, including real estate development, construction and today in a senior capacity overseeing all of its real estate investment/development activities, infrastructure investments and most recently other investments outside of either space.

Earlier this year, Walsh was leading the temporary conversion of the McCormick Place Convention Center into an alternate care facility for COVID-19. Ciambrone thinks the next steps are for the hospitals or healthcare facilities in place to be reconfigured in order to be better equipped to deal with future pandemics.

“Many hospital systems are experiencing financial strain,” he said. “But I think we will see a new generation of hospitals/clinics that have design and operational flexibility to handle future pandemics.”

Walsh is also in a consortium partnering with Michigan State University to build the Doug Meijer Innovation Center. The $85 million facility will be dedicated to research and healthcare innovation and will also provide space for research in artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and biostatistics.

The facility will be located in the Grand Rapids Innovation Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“I think we will see more of those types of projects where the public and private sector work together to bring new life science discoveries to market,” Ciambrone said. Walsh remains bullish on the student housing sector, Ciambrone said, but added that a contraction in that market is likely, with challenges at secondary and tertiary universities.

“What will be interesting is to see is if the design of student housing projects changes in a post-COVID environment,” Ciambrone said. “For example, will studio units become the primary unit type as parents/students are willing to pay more rent to live in a more controlled environment?”

Climate resiliency will attract attention but has given private sector investors headaches over the years.

Walsh was shortlisted on the Lake Agassiz Partners team in late 2016, alongside the likes of AECOM and Meridiam for the Fargo Moorhead flood protection P3. The project then got halted in September 2017 by a district judge over the failure to acquire certain permits. The process restarted finally in August 2019 with the Walsh group still in the fray, alongside two other groups.

A preferred bidder is expected to be selected in the latter half of this year, but COVID-19 has slowed down the process.

This project “provides a good example of municipalities successfully working together to reduce climate impacts,” Ciambrone said. “But these initiatives can be bogged down by both politics and litigation.”

In addition, Ciambrone envisions that governments might push resiliency projects behind more immediate funding needs.

Moving forward, Walsh will look to diversify its book of business into certain areas.

“Our focus will be on those projects in which we can achieve our fee expectations that are commensurate with underlying project risk,” he said. “Our goal is to have a diversified book of business which provides Walsh business resiliency, especially in our uncertain economic and political climate.”



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