Maria Escalona was working on the type of project that can only happen in Miami when she got the call that brought her to Tampa.
The now 35-year-old project manager for JE Dunn Construction was one of the leaders on the build out of a high-end independent living facility with bars, beauty salons, game rooms and party rooms. A memory care center was attached. This was a place aimed at Miami’s wealthy, artistic class and had been the kind of project that had helped Escalona prove herself. “It was like a party house, but with a lot of luxury in it,” she says.
As the project was nearing completion — the work on the interior was underway and delivery not far off — her then-bosses at Coastal Construction Group reached out with an opportunity. There was an opening for a project manager to lead the construction of the first residential tower in a new neighborhood in Tampa.
This was no ordinary building. It was Heron, a dual-towered residential development in Water Street Tampa.
Heron is an ultimate standout building — drawing your eye to design elements often lost to the utilitarian construction model so often reserved for buildings, where, however nice, one floor is identical to the one below it and the one above it. At Heron, Escalona says, “balconies, they dance,” creating an aesthetic of a building “that is swimming.”
For Escalona, even with the challenges of bringing such an ambitious design to life, Heron was an opportunity to tackle a project that could take her career to new heights. Despite advice she should finish the Miami project first, an instinct she had to overcome herself, she put her name up for a shot to lead the construction.
So, when the call came, she did not hesitate to take the assignment. “I said, ‘We’re going to Tampa.’ And my husband said, ‘O.K. We’re going to Tampa.”
“Heron was very complex,” she says in a conversation about her favorite projects, just shy of three years after completing construction. “I will say, top, top, top Heron. No matter what. It shaped me.”
While Heron, for many, may have been career defining, a pinnacle after decades of work, for Escalona it was a stepping stone in what she hopes is a long career of taking on big projects and leaving an imprint on the communities in which she works.
She is completing one of those projects now at the The Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. She's also set to begin work on a 269-unit apartment development in St. Petersburg.
And, as one of the few women in a male-dominated industry (women made up 10.9% of the U.S. construction workforce in 2022 according to The National Association of Women in Construction), she is making a concerted effort to be a role model and sounding board for others who are coming into construction, leading both individual groups who get together informally and company initiatives.
“She's quietly confident, but extremely humble. And I think that humbleness, and the willingness to learn, endears her to other people,” says Jake Nellis, vice president of JE Dunn’s Tampa office and Escalona’s boss.
“Where you might have some folks that just naturally have conflicts because they've got competing agendas, she's thinking about the ultimate agenda, which is our client, and then pulling those people along. When you sit down with Maria, you're quickly going to be at ease and more than likely inspired.”
Doctor in the house
For Escalona, settling for the status quo and taking the easy route is probably not something that’s ever crossed her mind. Her determination comes from both a passion for the work and a natural desire to prove herself.
She is the daughter of two doctors who, naturally, expected her to follow in their footsteps.
But Escalona, raised in Valencia, Venezuela, fell in love with construction and building as a teenager when her mother, Dr. Laddy Cassanova de Escalona, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist for children, built and designed the family’s dream home.
Maria Escalona was 14 at the time and would go to the site after school, looking at the plans, seeing where things went, asking questions and learning.
She fell in love with the process.
Sometime during the construction of the house Escalona announced to her parents that she would forgo medical school and go into construction.
“They freaked out. They were like, ‘I thought you were going be doctor and a pediatrician.’ I'm like, ‘That's what you want. That's not what I want,’” she says.
After graduating from high school she began studying civil engineering at the Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela and eventually, before graduating, went to work for the company that built the family home.
Despite moving quickly into her career, her father, Pedro Escalona, who practiced internal medicine and was an infectious disease specialist for adults, still wondered if medicine was in her future, telling her there was time, she was still young. “And I was like no, I know what I want.”
(Her father is no longer pushing for her to go to medical school, or is at least not vocalizing it, she says. Her mother insists there is still time.)
But at the time, this was the early 2010s, violence and unrest were making life dangerous in Valencia, a city in northwest Venezuela with a population of about 1.9 million. They were running into situations where unions would forcibly shut down projects and people were getting kidnapped. This as students were taking to the streets, fighting to take down the government.
Professionally, there were material shortages that made getting work done difficult. When you could work, there were delays because people were out protesting. Shootings were common.
“That sounds very heavy here,” Escalona says. “But over there, by that time, it was very normal.”
In 2012 Escalona left he home country: violence and unrest were making life too dangerous and dimming her prospects. After a brief stopover in Boston, she came to Florida and began to work on her master’s in construction management at Florida International University.
She says the work was difficult and that she had to master the complicated subject matter while simultaneously trying to master the English language.
Before her first class, Escalona says she made sure to study the entire dictionary. She could translate words from Spanish to English —crane was grúa — and was ready to go. And what’s the first thing the professor and class do? They begin speaking in acronyms.
“I was like, ‘What is that? That one is not in the dictionary. HVAC? Who is that?’ There was like a language shock there,” she says. “You know, I learned it all. It was part of the process. It was just, you know, it was hard. But I made it through.”
Being a couple of steps behind her colleagues may have derailed another’s career, but Escalona was convinced all she needed was someone to give her an opportunity.
That first chance was so important, Escalona knew, because if she didn’t practice and if she wasn’t out there, she’d never learn. “I prefer to be embarrassed for a while, but learn and try,” she says.
Coastal gave her that opportunity, starting her off, because of the language barrier, as a contract administrator, receiving invoices and processing contracts. This was not what her masters degree was for, but “I was like, if I cannot talk what are these people going to expect from me?”
Whatever they expected, they likely got it. And more.
Escalona stayed with the company for seven years and, today, ironically, one of her great strengths is the ability to communicate, says JE Dunn’s Nellis.
He says Escalona is excellent with her crews and can easily diffuse situations; she’s been chosen to lead an internal program at JE Dunn designed to promote women in construction that’s led to greater diversity in hiring; and she’s one of the go-to people at the office when it comes to major presentations to executives or clients.
“I don't think she's ever had a bad day. She walks up and down the hall, just smiling, consistently on the phone,” says Nellis. “But she's the first one to volunteer to get something done. And when you give her even a small task, the outcome is exceptional. She just beats all expectations.”
Oh. And lest anyone forget, she builds, too.
Escalona joined JE Dunn Construction April 5, 2021.
The current project she’s working on is an immersive dome being built as part of an expansion at The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.
When complete later this summer, the dome will be part of major new exhibit called Dali 360. The museum says the “multi-sensory art experience will envelop visitors in 360 degrees of light and sound, within a monumental new museum space — The Dali Dome.”
This was the first time she worked on a museum project and, along with it being a project she’s proud of, it has won her some hard-earned kudos from her parents in Venezuela who may — or may not — be still be smarting that she’s not a pediatrician.
“My family loved that,” she says of telling them that she was working with a museum.
Next up is 1000 1st Ave., which will be two 15-story buildings with residential towers sitting atop a four-story base that will include a leasing office, residential lobby and retail space in St. Petersburg’s Edge District neighborhood.
She says the layout for excavation of the mud foundations, pile caps and the crane foundation have begun and that there is an aggressive 25-month schedule in place for the $135 million project. She’s also working with the executive on future projects.
Wirth the Dali project wrapping up in a couple of weeks, her focus turns to the new building.
“I love construction,” she says with a look and enthusiasm that leaves little room for doubt. “That's my new baby right now.”
(This story has been updated to clarify Escalona's role on the Miami assisted living facility project.)
Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.