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January 30, 2012

New AGC president says his focus will be on election, membership

  • Tiger Construction’s Steve Isenhart is working on Rob McKenna’s campaign and boosting AGC membership.
    Journal Construction Editor


    He helped build a church addition in Ecuador and saved lives locally as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. Now, Steve Isenhart is taking on another volunteer role: he’s leading the AGC of Washington this year as president.

    Isenhart is co-owner, estimator and project manager for Tiger Construction, a commercial building and civil works contractor in Whatcom County.

    He said one of AGC’s goals for 2012 is to get Rob McKenna elected governor because he has a plan for reforming state government to get money for road repairs and other projects.

    “We think he would bring a fresh change to Olympia,” Isenhart said.

    Another goal is to keep membership strong.

    The struggling construction economy has taken a toll on association membership, but AGC of Washington has added a few new members each year. “We’ve done really well over the last four years to maintain and grow our membership,” Isenhart said.

    He attributed the retention rate to the local staff and member programs. “When money gets tight, you start thinking ‘What am I getting for the money?’ Members see the value.”

    A new program called the Green Team is expected to launch this year. Isenhart said it is modeled after AGC’s Safety Team, which helps members with safety programs. The Green Team will help members with LEED and other sustainability efforts.

    Rocky Mountain roots

    Isenhart grew up in Lakewood, Colo., and earned a bachelor’s degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. He got his first taste of construction in college building vacation homes and infrastructure around a nearby lake for his parents, who had a development business.

    Isenhart got a job in Texas oil exploration after college, but didn’t like moving constantly: He lived in five states that year. In 1973, he was enticed to Washington state by his uncle, who needed an engineer for a construction project. A dozen years later, Isenhart joined Tiger Construction, which was founded in 1974 by his brother Ken.

    Steve works on Tiger’s building projects while Ken is in charge of civil work. Both have sons who work there: Steve’s son Derek and Ken’s sons Scott and Nick.

    Tiger Construction is working on a $20 million rebuild of Meridian High School in Bellingham that includes $2 million-$3 million in civil work, which it also is doing. The school is occupied during construction, which should be finished in October of 2013.

    Isenhart said he is most proud of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, designed by Demetriou Architects of Kirkland. The original church was destroyed in a fire and Tiger built a new one in 1998 that Isenhart said looks like it came from the Greek Isles. Every Friday construction crews were treated to lunch made by women from the church.

    Isenhart said creating a building is rewarding, but what he likes best is the people — from the owner, to the architect, to the guy who installs bathroom tile.

    Giving back

    Isenhart joined the AGC as a way to give back to the industry. He said it depends on volunteers to keep it going.

    He also wants to give back to his community, and has served as a fireman and emergency medical technician for 20 years at the Kendall Fire Station.

    “When you go to somebody’s house and help them overcome an emergency, they are so grateful,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a great experience.”

    The area where he served was on the road to Mount Baker, so he saw a lot of car wrecks. He said one time a man had a heart attack and had to be airlifted to a hospital. Just after the helicopter left, the man’s wife also suffered a heart attack. Crews couldn’t get the helicopter back, so they put her in the emergency van and took her to a local hospital. Both people survived.

    But serving as a firefighter/EMT can also be emotionally draining. Just after becoming an EMT, Isenhart tried to resuscitate a boy who had been hit by a car, but the boy died. Isenhart was also on the crew fighting a house fire when two children died. Isenhart said everyone on the force would support each other in those traumatic times.

    After his firefighter/EMT days, Isenhart traveled to Ecuador in 2009 to build a church addition along with his wife and son.

    Future workers

    Isenhart said he is concerned about where the workforce for construction will come from in the future. Five years ago, industry leaders were looking for ways to draw young people into construction to replace an aging workforce. When the construction industry tanked, that sent young people who had been thinking about construction careers into different fields.

    “We’re not going to have a labor pool to help build things in the future,” he said.

    But, all’s not gloomy in construction. Isenhart said more commercial and apartment projects are springing up in Bellingham, and more tower cranes are in Seattle. “That’s a telltale sign to me that things are starting to be revived.”


    Benjamin Minnick can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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