Great Lakes Cast Stone operates on a quiet street in Girard. But once you know what to look for, you can see evidence of the company’s architectural cast stone products all around the region.
For example, you can see the company’s work in the decorative touches on the amphitheater in downtown Erie’s Perry Square; on the new parking garage on Erie’s bayfront; and on the new Crawford County Judicial Center in Meadville.
Steven Henderson, company president, hopes to see more work as other construction projects get underway in the region.
The current level of commercial construction is in many ways unprecedented, offering opportunities for local suppliers but also for owners to patronize local suppliers and contractors – which can maximize the economic impact of a project.
Most of Great Lakes Cast Stone’s work, however, heads to projects out of town, as was evidenced by the rows and rows of decorative pieces – in all stages of completion – that were destined for upstate New York.
As we toured the plant, Henderson walked us through Great Lakes Cast Stone’s wet-pour and dry-tamp processes.
With the wet-pour process, workers pour concrete into molds, where it hardens overnight. The frames are then removed, and the finished pieces are left to cure for 28 days.
With the dry-tamp process – which Henderson compares to building a sand castle – a worker scoops powdery mix into molds, packing it down with high pressure. The mold is flipped over, and the molded piece is revealed – though, like a sand castle, it is fragile and can easily crumble. After being treated overnight with high heat and humidity, however, it hardens to look like limestone.
“Our business is very visual,” Henderson says. “The look of architectural precast or cast stone is a cost effective way to enhance the design of any project.”
Henderson is relatively new to the cast-stone industry – he has business interests in the city of Erie, and about four years ago was looking to branch out into something new. He found what he was looking for in Girard. The company’s previous owner was seeking a buyer that could provide needed local management while maintaining a working affiliation.
For Henderson, that worked out well – he was able to purchase the business, and in the process save 18 jobs that would have been lost if the facility had closed. Plus, it’s a good fit for him personally.
“Each project is completely different,” he says. “I like the work.”
About Great Lakes Cast Stone: The company covers 18 states, roughly ranging from New England down to Virginia in the east, and western Ohio down to Mississippi in the west. Their work is predominantly commercial, with about 70 percent wet-pour and the remainder dry-tamp. The company is certified, and Henderson details with pride the procedures – including frequent testing – that the staff goes through to ensure that they only offer quality products. “This stuff doesn’t look that precise, but a little change in sand or color throws everything off,” he says. The quality of the finished product is the most important consideration.
Why Erie County: To Henderson, Erie County has the benefits of being a pleasant place to live, with a low cost of living and without urban stress. In addition, he has seen first-hand the benefits of working with agencies in the county, namely the Erie County Redevelopment Authority. He was able to purchase Great Lakes Cast Stone with the help of the authority, which he praised for making the process easy and seamless.
Challenges of Erie County: Some of Henderson’s challenges are common to small businesses, and to businesses in his line of work. For example, he finds it challenging to find extra money in the budget for technical improvements he would like to make. The long-term nature of construction projects also means that he must play a long game to make sure there is the right amount of future work for the company. “In this business, it’s feast or famine,” he says. In addition, however, Henderson is frustrated when he sees out-of-town businesses doing architectural precast work on local projects. He actively supports local businesses when possible – including Team Hardinger, for transportation – and wishes that Erie County projects would be more active in supporting Erie County businesses.
Fun fact: Transportation can be expensive for Great Lakes Cast Stone – their cement weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot.