Temporary housing created for hundreds of Soo Locks workers

A years-long expansion is underway at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie will require hundreds of construction workers throughout the project’s three phases.

Like other areas of Michigan and the country, Sault Ste. Marie has housing challenges. But thanks to a cooperative effort between the Chippewa County Economic Development Commission and the project's contractors, officials have found a solution to the housing crunch: temporary, mobile housing.

Turn-key, dorm-like apartments – built by a company known for helping with housing at disaster sites – are being constructed on nearly 10 acres on M-80 in nearby Kincheloe. The first set of workers moved into the apartments and more will follow. 

What's happening: The first housing units at Kinross Lodge opened in July in Kincheloe, about a half hour from the Soo Locks expansion project. About 25 workers are currently living in the residential units. There will eventually be room for up to 400 workers in the development built by Southeastern Disaster Relief Services, a company that specializes in speedy construction of mobile temporary housing. Currently,  two buildings house 38 rooms. 

How the project came about: Kathy Thomas, executive assistant at the Chippewa County EDC, says that before the Kinross Lodge opening, there wasn’t enough available rental housing in Sault Ste. Marie and workers were scrambling to find housing. Many of them were staying in hotels or campgrounds. “Like the rest of the state, we have a short supply,” Thomas says. “The Chippewa County EDC became involved after suitable, available land in Sault Ste Marie couldn't be found. Vacant land on M-80 in Kincheloe fit the needs and an agreement was made with Kinross Township, the property owners.” 

Kokosing Alberici Traylor, the contractor overseeing phase three of the construction project at the Locks, asked for 100 rooms this year, Thomas says, and there are plans to double the housing needs each year for the next two years.

Housing details: Each worker’s room at Kinross Lodge includes a private bathroom, a television with satellite service and WiFi access. Residents have access to a fully equipped workout room, as well as a covered porch close to the kitchen that offers plenty of space to visit and relax. Daily housekeeping services, 24-hour security, and transportation are also available. 

In addition, three buffet-style meals are served daily in the lodge dining hall. “The Soo Locks workers can receive breakfast before they go to work, are sent to work with a packed lunch, and come back for dinner,” Thomas says.
Rent is around $3,000 a month, depending on the services the contracted employer selects for its employees, who receive a monthly stipend for living and meal arrangements. 

This arrangement with the amenities available provides an ideal setup, Thomas says. “There are no comparable housing arrangements like this available in our community and if you compare it to the hotel and campground options that were being used,” she says, “the value is much better.”

Kinross Lodge is intended for workforce housing and any business looking to contract workers is welcome to contact Todd Harris at Southeastern Disaster Relief Services to make the same arrangements, she adds. The company was established to aid in the relief, recovery and restoration of areas affected by disaster. The company helped pick up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy on the Northeast Coast. 

The Soo Locks Expansion project: The Soo Locks on the St. Marys River connect Lake Huron and Lake Superior and allow vessels to travel to either lake by navigating one lock at a time over the 21-foot-elevation change at the St. Marys Falls Ship Canal. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in phases two and three of the three-phase expansion and upgrading of the locks. Construction is expected to wrap up in 2030.

The work includes: Deepening the upstream approach from 24 feet to 30 feet deep so modern vessels can approach the New Lock at the Soo. That work concluded in August 2022. The second phase involves rehabilitating and stabilizing the upstream approach walls to allow modern vessels to tie up and wait their turn to pass through the New Lock. The estimated completion date is summer 2024.

The third phase calls for demolishing the existing Sabin Lock, excavation of bedrock, constructing the New Lock chamber walls and floor, fabrication and installation of  gates, installation of mechanical and electrical systems, installation of the hands-free mooring system, rehabilitating downstream approach walls and constructing a new pump well. The estimated completion date is summer 2030.

The work is creating 1,240 jobs on an annual basis, says Carrie Fox, acting public affairs chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District. Of those, 600 are jobs directly related to construction and management of construction.

 In addition, 210 indirect jobs are industry jobs which supply goods and services in support of direct jobs— such as manufacturing of rebar. Fox says an additional 430 jobs support direct and indirect employees spending labor incomes, such as restaurant workers.
Some construction activities will take place year round, such as preparing rebar and ground clearing; some work is restricted to when the river freezes, such as marine construction.

What's next: Once the Soo Locks Expansion Project is finished, around 2030, the workforce housing will remove all the buildings and move on to a new project. All utilities will remain in place and be ready for a housing developer who wants to build a permanent housing complex.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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