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The $815 million man: Appo manager gets 34+ projects in on time, budget

Appo construction project manager Bob Hershey: 'You know you're getting old when they are tearing down things you built about 20 years ago,'

Bob Hershey, who is retiring as the Appoquinimink School District’s construction project manager at the end of August, has compiled an enviable record during two decades with the district: $815 million for new schools and renovations, with every project on time and on budget.

His work for Appoquinimink began with a project that wasn’t: the 1997 construction of Middletown High School. Healy Long & Jevin sent him to inspect the site, then six months behind. He stepped in and kept it from falling further behind. 

In 1999, the district hired him full-time, and he began his record.

Since then he’s built 14 new schools, done major renovations on 10 and handled at least six major addtions. Maybe seven.

“I lose count,” Hershey said.

Hershey credits many factors for the fiscal feat.

“None of that success was due to my efforts alone,” he emphasized. “The magnitude of what it takes to envision, design and construct these schools can’t be accomplished by a single individual and the record of achievement is truly a collaboration of many, many skilled and dedicated people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with over these past 20 years.”

Bob Hershey
Appoquinimink’s Bob Hershey

It’s not a one-man show, he said.

“You need all sorts of skilled people. Motivate and support them. Make sure all of these individuals work together as seamlessly as possible. And keep focus on the end goal.”

His background, including 20 years as a carpenter after spending three years in the U.S. Army working with heavy equipment, earned him respect from guys in the field.

Another factor was continuity, with EDiS as the construction manager and a small number of architects – Gilbert Architects of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; BSA + A and ABHA Architects of Wilmington; and RG Architects of Townsend – for most projects.

The trend will hopefully continue with Keith Hopkins, hired last year to work with Hershey.

“He’s the same sort of guy,” Hershey said of Hopkins.

“Bob walked into the a job that didn’t exist and had to create it,” said Hopkins, who has 35 years of experience in the industry. “I’ve learned a little about everything from him and will move it forward.”

Good school facilities can have “a profound impact on both teacher and student outcomes,” according to Penn State’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis. The five most important elements are acoustics, air quality, lighting, temperature and space. 

Funding for school construction and renovation in Delaware is complicated. 

The state starts by determining a maximum square footage for new schools and figuring out how much it should cost. It then offers its share, with the district paying the rest (Appoquinimink is responsible for 25%) – and 100% of overruns and for more costly additions.

The district usually covers construction and renovation through tax referendums, and Hershey has been involved in seven of them, usually every three years.

Appoquinimink continues to grow dramatically, from under 3,000 students in six schools when he started, to 23 schools and more than 12,000 students today.

Hershey grew up in western Pennsylvania. His grandfather was a carpenter, and his father taught industrial arts and history in the Avon Grove School District. 

Two of his children work on the office side of the construction industry, including his daughter, Jamie Chambers, community manager for the Delaware Contractors Association. 

His oldest grandchild, Avon Grove senior Alex Garcia, wants to get into construction management.

Just like his grandfather took him to construction sites, Hershey has taken his grandchildren to them.

“It’s a legacy,” he said. “I like working with my hands.”

His is most proud of his final project: the Fairview campus south of Odessa, with four schools going from kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s Delaware’s first such project.

Of course, there were problems along the way, such as compaction issues on the Fairview land that necessitated spending more on foundations.

Still, there’s an impressive performing arts center between the two upper schools, opening this year. Overall, he said, it’s “a great project to go out on.”

On Monday Hershey, who turned 65 in March, was sitting in the parking lot of Meredith Middle School, which was built in 1929 and is being torn down to make room for a new school.

One of Hershey’s first projects at Appo was building a two-story addition onto that school, which then had a breezeway connecting it to the gymnasium.

“You know you’re getting old when they are tearing down things you built about 20 years ago,” he said.

It’s not the only thing he’s built that’s been torn down.

Early in his career as a carpenter, he helped build the first three buildings that went up at the DuPont Co.’s Barley Mill Plaza. Much of it has now been torn down to make room for a multi-use development that will include a Wegmans grocery store.

Hershey is betting Hopkins has a chance to beat his record of building and renovating.

“Student growth is what’s really driven the fact that I even had an opportunity to build 14 schools,” Hershey said. “The location, Route 1 being opened up, the housing boom and the students is what’s kept everything booming here. It appears it’s not going to stop.”

The system has four projects underway now, he said.

Hopkins, he said, “could end up building more than the 14 schools I have if he stays long enough.”

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