NMSA Executive Director Seth Brown talks about COVID-19's continuing impact on the storm water industry
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact many facets of life, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders to get an update on how COVID-19 is impacting the industry. For more Q&As and to see the results of the Follow-Up: SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report.
Katie Johns: What do you think 2021 is going to look like?
Seth Brown: I think it’s going to, unfortunately, look terrible. I don’t mean to be a chicken little kind of thing. When the 2009 hit took place, that was a huge deal, but we could all get together and talk about it, and it seems like there were just more discussions. I think right now, this is worse than that. We’re all so distracted with things like the election, which is significant. It’s almost like we can’t handle it. We’ve got pandemic bad news, and then we’ve got election drama. I just don’t think we even appreciate like we could be in a depression next year. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It could be a nightmare, and it probably will be some version of a nightmare. I hope that’s not the case. I talk to folks like storm water manufacturers, and they don’t seem to be as concerned, so maybe I’m off on it. You’ve got projects that are in a pipeline and those are going to be built, but at some point that pipeline dries up, right? You have money that’s set aside for this year. That could build these things, but what about maybe the first step of next year? At some point that pipeline is going to end. It’s hard for me to believe that it won’t start to decline.
Johns: How do you think project postponement will affect the industry?
Brown: I think there’s delay related to design work. Because for designers, having to work in teams and having to get the permit reviews and plan reviews and this-and-that, that all requires engagement. I haven’t heard from anybody how they deal with public meetings. That’s where I heard (of) postponing– if you need to have a kind of process requiring that. As far as getting permits, like an MS4 permit, I think there’s been some work around that’s been done. I know the construction industry is moving forward. They haven’t had the big shut down the way that others have because they’re outside, and they’ve been deemed critical, whereas holding public meetings for a project or designing something has not been considered critical that way because of the economic significance of construction. If it’s a design, how do we get this done? I think at some point I’ve just seen people make a work around. You know “I can find a way now in my office to do work I need to remotely and set up a remote engagement platform.” I think there’s people solving those problems to move projects ahead. There’s going to be probably, right now, I think, a rush to get things done because once budgets are done in many instances, whatever you don’t use, you lose. It doesn’t roll over, so I could see how there has been a delay that kind of holds us back, but at some point you’ve got to move forward or you lose the budget to do that.
I think it depends on where you are in the industry, design or construction, and also I think that if it’s design, it’s going to start soon, if it hasn’t already. In March, April, May, it was like “do we need to shut down for two months? And then we’re good or is it going to be in six months or 12 months?” I think most of us figured it out by now, so I think those things are probably moving forward now and will continue to move forward because it’s going to be like, “we’re going to do what we can while we have a budget because we don’t know how long we’re going to have that money.”
Johns: What do you think are some takeaways from this pandemic, some lessons learned, that you think will stick with the industry for a while?
Brown: Well, budgets have shifted, so I think there’s professional development. How do we engage professionally that way for conferences and things like that? I think some people think there’s going to be a rebound when we meet together and we’re going to have massive conferences. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’ve learned what we can do remotely. The groups that I know about have invested money into programs where they can get people to engage remotely, and they’ve had pretty good success – better than I think they thought they’d have. I think you can draw people in who wouldn’t normally go to a conference because it’s expensive to travel, so I think that’s going to continue. I think we’re going to see hybrid conferences for a while. That leads into, or also reflects, the offices’s spending. We’re going to have less office space. People are going to be more comfortable working remotely, so I think there’s going to be more of that going on. In terms of local government, state government, again, if we can get some stimulus then I think that will help to stabilize things. But the 2008- 2009 recession showed that the levels of spending at localities didn’t come back until close to 10 years. It was just kind of getting back to where it was before this all hit. It’s not like it’s going to bounce back in two or three years. I think it’s going to kind of take a number of years. I do think there’s going to be an ongoing appreciation of green space and green infrastructure and I am hopeful that’s a positive thing that’s going to come out of this in terms of landscape architecture and urban green space, more of a natural infrastructure view of things.