PHILADELPHIA -- Sure, the economy has been rough on construction workers. But all those idled carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and masons have sidelined another critical component of the building process that never gets much attention:
The ceremonial shovel.
Never mind the glad-handing elected leaders and corporate executives -- it's the shovel that's the star of the show at groundbreakings. How else are the featured guests supposed to hoist dirt to officially launch a project?
But with little being built since the recession's ignoble debut in December 2007, groundbreakings have been rare events. That has meant a sorry time for the ceremonial shovel.
"Everything went off a cliff," said Ron Stevens, director of marketing for Engraving Awards & Gifts of New Hampshire, a worldwide supplier of ceremonial shovels -- even chocolate miniature ones -- via http://www.ceremonialshovels.com.
The cliff he referred to manifested itself in 2009 -- up until then, construction projects in the pipeline kept orders for shovels coming in. Then they dropped off as much as 50 percent, Stevens said.
Nationwide, new nonresidential construction projects -- where groundbreaking celebrations are most common -- fell nearly 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to Reed Construction Data LLC of Oakbrook, Ill.
Before the recession's doomful arrival, business at Engraving Awards & Gifts was robust, growing as much as 20 percent a year since the 19-year-old company established a Web presence in 2001, Stevens said.
Its shovels -- $99 to nearly $500, if they are engraved -- have helped set in motion hospitals and university buildings, as well as such high-profile projects as the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx -- those shovels had handles in the shape of baseball bats -- and Tiger Woods Dubai, a golf resort and residential community in the United Arab Emirates.
Stevens said his company's most popular shovel is the 40-inch D-handle (named for the grip's resemblance to that letter), with a gold- or chrome-plated blade polished to a mirror finish.
That is assuming the customer is not the taxpayer-funded Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Its groundbreakings for highway projects are celebrated with no-frills tools plucked from a maintenance-office storeroom, spokesman Eugene Blaum said.
"These are shovels for everyday use," he said, noting that the agency orders about 240 each year for the five-county Philadelphia area.
Though PennDot doesn't "dress them up at all" for groundbreaking ceremonies, Blaum said, it does make sure the shovels haven't been used for work before the events.
"We certainly want them to be presentable," he said.
Reliability is critical, too, said Alison Hamme, who, as marketing coordinator at Liberty Property Trust, was part of the planning for a recent groundbreaking for two buildings at the Philadelphia Navy Yard -- the company's first construction start in 20 months.
"You want to make sure the shovel is sturdy enough, that you can stick it in the ground, you can pick up some dirt," she said, chuckling at the idea of one falling apart mid-dig with cameras recording it all.
After extensive research online and by phone, Hamme settled on eight 30-inch, round-point, steel-blade shovels from Home Depot, $21.97 each.
But the cost was closer to $50 apiece, Hamme said, when printing and related expenses were factored in for reverse-vinyl applications naming the project's participants: developers Liberty Property and Synterra Partners, architects Environetics, and contractor Torcon Construction Inc.
The ceremonial shovels were offered as keepsakes to the shovelers, including former Sen. Arlen Specter and Mayor Nutter. Hamme would not say who, if anyone, left with one.
Just three miles from the Navy Yard, Diamond Tools would have relished the opportunity to supply the shovels for the event, said Evan McIntyre, showroom manager and marketing director at the 37-year-old family-owned business.
"I would love to sell every single ceremonial shovel from here to California," McIntyre said, though sales are only "a couple a year, tops." Price could be the problem: $127.80, according to Diamond Tools' website.
"It's the metal that's used on them, a polished chrome," McIntyre explained. "It's basically the same grade chrome that you would probably have in a lot of finished products in your house." And the 27-inch handle is made of northern ash.
Still, hope springs eternal.
"We stock them, so we're ready to go," McIntyre said.
To Stevens at Engraving Awards & Gifts, the ceremonial shovel has come to mean more than sales. It has become a barometer of economic recovery.
In 2010, demand was back, led, he said, by "a lot of energy companies building wind farms."
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