While the term “helix” often gets used when talking about DNA, the building blocks of life, Josh Weiner first heard it in the context of construction when his firm was developing Kalamazoo Commons.
To make room for a mixture of uses including apartments, offices, retail and a movie theater, an existing downtown parking ramp had to be remodeled on a smaller footprint. In order to keep the same number of spaces, the design/build team proposed an innovative helix – a circular, upward moving drive that motorists use to access levels of the ramp.
The team came up with the idea because, in this case, the builder and designer were both. Continental Companies
“It was through (owner) Jerry (Stifler) and his design team that we came up with the helix,” said Weiner, CEO of the Meyer C. Weiner Co. “I have found over the years that his attributes and education have made his model of being a design-build contractor particularly beneficial to developers like me, who always seem to be wanting projects done quickly and seamlessly from beginning to end.
“With both the design and the building capability, not to mention the engineering background, that certainly streamlines the process.”
In many ways, Continental has been the building block of Kalamazoo over the past half-century. You don’t have to drive for long to pass a building designed and constructed by Stifler’s team. From strip malls on Westnedge Avenue to the Holiday Inn West off U.S. 131 to the iconic Wings Stadium, Continental has had a hand in over 3,000 projects during the past 50-plus years.
Stifler started Continental in 1965, three years after beginning his career with another Kalamazoo-area construction firm. When his employer told him he had qualified for the company’s retirement plan, he quit. Stifler wasn’t in business to retire. He was in business to build buildings.
His first solo job: a church building on Whites Road near Kalamazoo Country Club.
“I had about $1,500 to my name,” Stifler recalled. “I didn’t get a bond. I couldn’t get a bond. I bid it anyway.
“They didn’t ask for a bond.”
Through more than 3,000 construction projects across 14 different states, Stifler has never brought on a partner. He alone leads his company of 17 people including architects, project managers, field superintendents, carpenters and support staff.
Under Stifler’s leadership, Continental became one of the Kalamazoo area’s first design-build contractors – handling both architect and general contractor roles. More than 50 years after Continental was founded, design-build construction firms remain rare. Even more rare are companies such as Continental that provide design-build services with excellent cost control, construction quality and timeliness. In large part, Continental is able to get things done on a tight schedule at lower cost because project design is in house.
Continental’s design-build model includes free preliminary designs and a guaranteed budget with guaranteed completion dates. It results in cost savings of up to 28 percent compared to conventional design-bid-build construction. Plus, although a design-build model makes sense for many projects, Continental has a successful track record of associating with different architects when the situation warrants.
The company’s extensive design-build portfolio includes Pheasant Run, one of the area’s first condominium projects, restoration of the historic Globe Building downtown, revitalization of the Rave theatre block that’s home to Kalamazoo Commons and reimagination of the former Pinz Kalamazoo bowling alley that’s now known as Revel & Roll.
In 1974, Continental designed and built Wings Stadium, which went on to host concerts by The Beach Boys, Gordon Lightfoot, Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley and scores of other music greats through the years.
“That’s where I got my reputation,” Stifler said. “We finished it so fast and on schedule and under budget that I was written up as the world’s greatest contractor.”
Continental has built retail centers, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, entertainment centers and residential projects all over Kalamazoo – from ground-up development projects as small as a few thousand square-feet to complicated remodels and renovations that cost upwards of $20 million.
All the while, Continental has gotten the job done on time and on budget.
“Delivery dates, completion dates all are very critical, and Continental has been great at performing and meeting those deadlines,” said Weiner, whose firm has worked with Continental on over 20 projects over the past 30 years.
“We’ve found the pricing to be very competitive, the seamlessness of development optimal and the fact that Continental has a great reputation in the field all have led us to do a lot of work with Jerry.”
Gregory A. Taylor, principal of Phoenix Properties in Kalamazoo, has worked with Continental on several projects over the years including office and commercial buildouts as well as renovations. The design-build contractor’s experience and unique capabilities – like how the company self-performs some general construction trades with its own crew – makes Continental “more nimble” than many other contractors, he said.
Continental currently is working with Taylor and the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation on a $5.5 million renovation of the old downtown building at 162 E. Michigan Ave. that way back in the 1800s was an opera house. It has taken lots of design time figuring out how to convert the upper floors of the building into apartments, and Continental’s design-build model has been key.
“If you want a design-build concept, they’re a one stop shop,” Taylor said. “Continental playing both the role of general contractor and architect, which is a little unique, helped relative to the multiple iterations they had to do.
“We’re on schedule, on budget and looking to finish things by the end of February.”
The current project at 162 E. Michigan Ave. is updating first-floor office and retail space, putting a snowmelt system in the sidewalk and adding 26 apartments to the upper floors. There’s no helix in the plans. But Continental is the project’s lifeblood all the same.
Said Stifler: “We designed it. We built it.”