Builder's fast break finished ODU's new arena!
By HARRY MINIUM, The Virginian-Pilot© November 23, 2002
NORFOLK -- Eleven months ago, a construction accident put Old Dominion University's plans to open a new arena this fall at risk. A giant crane was lifting a 55,000-pound, 240-foot-long steel truss, the last of five to be installed at the Ted Constant Convocation Center, when the crane collapsed.
The truss that would support the roof and hold up the arena's giant scoreboard fell 80 feet, bent and useless, as the crane disintegrated. David Robichaud, project manager for ODU, concluded the arena could not be ready for basketball season.
Stephen B. Ballard didn't agree. It was his S.B. Ballard Construction Company that was building the arena.
Getting the arena open on time became an obsession of Ballard's, said Ron Tola, an ODU vice president. That was in part because Ballard's company never had built an arena -- its niche is concrete, such as the Virginia Beach Oceanfront seawall and the Norfolk Airport parking garage -- and Ballard wanted the Constant Center to be a showpiece for his company.
Because this was Ballard's first arena, ODU was concerned enough to hire Turner Construction, which specializes in arenas and stadiums, to do an analysis of Ballard's plans. Turner told ODU that Ballard would complete the building two months late.
``We were determined to prove them wrong,'' Ballard said.
He delivered nearly two months early. Friday night, the ODU Lady Monarchs basketball team hosted Virginia in the center's first regular-season sports event. ODU lost, 63-55.
To get the building open on time, Ballard did some unusual things.
He called Canam Steel in Point of Rocks, Md., which manufactured the truss, asking how long it would take to rebuild the one his crane destroyed. Months, he was told.
Ballard rented a plane and flew to the plant, carrying T-shirts and hats and a bag full of $100 bills. He asked the plant manager, production manager, union chiefs and workers to lunch. Then he gave a speech about a university in Virginia trying to open its arena. He spread the hats, T-shirts and cash on the table.
``I told them I needed 15 volunteers,'' Ballard said. ``I promised them all double-time, plus a couple of hundred bucks apiece.''
It wasn't just the money that won over the plant workers, said Robert Richard, general manager at Canam.
``Have you ever spoken to Steve?'' he said. ``His passion got a lot of them on board. Workers pulled a truss out of a machine they had started forming for the Detroit Lions' new stadium and began working on ODU's truss. They got it done the following afternoon.''
The extra work cost Ballard $146,000.
As construction moved along, he put up a countdown board listing the number of days before the first basketball game to push himself and his 40 subcontractors harder.
When several subcontractors fell behind, he offered a $10,000 premium to the one that best adhered to the schedule. Money motivated them, he said.
Ballard's biggest problem was with a Maryland company hired to manufacture hollow concrete planks used in the concourse. He was assured by the manufacturer that his planks were being made. Unconvinced, Ballard rented a helicopter, and he and Paul Littlefield, his construction manager, flew to the plant. Ballard called the owner on his cell phone while they circled above. The owner assured him he was indeed making the planks.
``You'd better be,'' Ballard said. ``Because I'm about to land in your plant.''
His worst fears were confirmed. Not only were the planks not completed, but a critical machine was broken.
Ballard had a machine part flown to Maryland that afternoon, and the planks were delivered to Norfolk two days later.
``I'm not the most tactful person in the world,'' Ballard said.
But he has a softer side. He grew up not far from the Constant Center in Colonial Place.
Every few months, he would ask Littlefield to clean up the arena floor so he could drive his mother inside.
She was dying of lung cancer.
``We knew she wouldn't make it long enough to see the arena open,'' Ballard said. ``I'd drive her right in through the loading dock and we'd park in the middle of the arena and open the windows.