Portlander Dick Corkum stared at a piece of aging, dirt-smeared construction equipment the way a tourist at the Louvre in Paris might stare at the Mona Lisa, entranced by the perfect union of art and engineering. "It's a beautiful machine, one-of-a-kind," Corkum said of the object of his affection – an almost 20-year-old excavator, one of nearly 1,000 items up for auction at the former Evergreen Airfield in Vancouver July 31.

Joined by hundreds of foremen, independent contractors and curious onlookers, Corkum attended one of the biggest construction auctions in Southwest Washington memory, conducted by one of the world's largest auction companies, Vancouver, B.C.-based Ritchie Bros.

Nearly half of the equipment on sale belonged to Washougal's George Schmid & Sons, a family-run excavation business reportedly looking to get leaner in the midst of one of the nastiest construction downturns in a generation. Among the items Schmid looked to unload last week were trucks, tractors and digging equipment.

And there were plenty of takers – both inside the auction tent and online via a live video feed. According to Ritchie Bros. regional manager Ron Giroux, revenue from the all-day sale topped $5 million, with Internet bids coming in from as far away as Egypt.

However, most of the bidders came from companies much closer to home. One of Schmid's competitors in the excavating business, Vancouver-based Thompson Bros., picked up more than $50,000 in Schmid equipment, including excavators and a brush cutting hydro-axe, according to owner Brad Thompson.

For Thompson, the auction represented a bittersweet opportunity for his firm to get well-maintained machines at a good price from a trusted company. "We're competitors, but we're also good friends," he said. "George Schmid even helped me get into the excavating business."

Thompson's sentiments aside, last week's auction was mostly an impersonal affair, akin to a Nordstrom Black Friday sale for the blue-collar construction set.

"I'm not quite sure what I bid on exactly," said John, a logging road maintenance contractor, shortly after excitedly bidding $15,000 on what turned out to be the wrong truck. "But I'm sure I got a good deal."

Some cooler heads did prevail. Ron Clark, a logging superintendent from Trout Lake,  spent almost an hour testing the clutches of four Schmid D6C Caterpillar tractors – all in varying degrees of age and repair. "It's a company dispersal, so you're gonna see their older, more tired equipment," Clark said. "Some of them are more than 30 years old, so you got to be careful."

Surrounded by a sea of construction equipment stamped with Schmid's distinctive white and green nameplates, many bidders couldn't resist speculation over the fate of the veteran excavators, as well as the fortunes of the entire industry. "I think they will come out much smaller," Clark said, contradicting reports that suggested some members of the family-run firm wanted to retire from the business.

Representatives from Schmid did not return calls for comment as of press time.

Founded in 1975, Schmid has worked on many large public and private-sector projects, such as the Clark County Public Works Building, Hazel Dell Town Center and the Sunset Ridge housing subdivision in Washougal.

For Thompson, the prospect of a smaller Schmid changed the landscape of the region's excavating industry, with smaller players benefitting from a possible changing of the guard.

 "The bidding for projects will be less-competitive, definitely," Thompson said. "When Schmid was big they could just come in and buy a job, just to keep busy."

But that scenario depends on the economy picking up so that there are contracts for any firm, big or small, to bid on. So far, according to several sources in the construction industry, things have been very slow, with federal stimulus spending just beginning to funnel into big "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects like the Longview Westside Highway and Vancouver's Downtown Waterfront Access project.

For those who think things in Southwest Washington are bad enough, things could always be worse. In Central Florida, one of the epicenters of the nation's housing collapse, Ritchie Bros. held what could have been its largest auction to date, generating over $184 million from more than 8,300 lots over a six-day period last February.

"My mother always used to tell us that construction was a form of legalized gambling," said Corkum, one of a long line of Northwest builders. "She was right, I think."

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