December 8, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

By Mickey Powell - Bulletin Staff Writer

A regional economic development organization is giving the New College Institute (NCI) a second large grant related to the institute's new building under construction on the Baldwin Block in uptown Martinsville.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) will provide NCI with $200,000 to help establish a "center of excellence" at the building,  Gov. Bob McDonnell announced Friday.

NCI Executive Director William Wampler said the project is a collaboration of the institute, Patrick Henry Community College and the Martinsville and Henry County school systems to train at least 75 people - including high-schoolers - annually for jobs with technologically advanced manufacturers such as RTI International Metals and Commonwealth Laminating & Coating.

Those training efforts will be based at the building, where some of the most high-tech manufacturing devices available will be installed, Wampler said.

The grant officially was awarded to NCI's private fundraising arm, the New College Foundation.

In August, the ARC awarded the foundation and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development $500,000 toward construction of the three-story, roughly 50,000 square-foot building, which also will be used for telemedicine and entrepreneurship programs that NCI is developing.

The building, the first to be built specifically for NCI, also will contain public event space and the institute's administrative offices.  The Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. and the uptown visitors center plan to move into the building.

Including equipment and furnishings, the building's total construction cost is estimated at $18 million.  About $17 million in state and federal funds, plus public and private grants, so far has been raised, and a private, $2 million "Building on Baldwin" fundraising campaign continues, officials have said.

In contrast to the previous grant, the additional $200,000 from the ARC will be used toward costs for training students on the advanced manufacturing equipment and maintaining the equipment, according to Wampler.

The ARC is a federal-state partnership involved in economic development and community sustainability efforts in areas surrounding the Appalachian Mountains in 13 states, according to its website.

ARC grant funds are "part of an economic development strategy to spur growth in the Appalachian region," McDonnell said in a release.

By providing the funds, "we are encouraging development in communities that are poised for future growth by funding projects such as infrastructure, education, tourism and entrepreneurship support," he said.

Wampler said NCI applied for the second ARC grant, part of $2.27 million in funds awarded to 10 projects in the Appalachian region as part of the latest grant cycle.  No other grants went to Henry County-Martinsville projects.

The ARC's decision to approve NCI's latest grant may have had something to do with problems that Henry County and Martinsville are having in convincing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve permits needed to develop the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre near Ridgeway, Wampler said.

Grading permits have not been approved by the corps because no company interested in the site had been identified.  Yet companies will not consider a site unless it is graded, county and city officials have said.

However, local officials have said two companies recently indicated they are interested in locating in the industrial park if a permit is issued for site preparation work.

The $200,000 ARC grant could "break the logjam," said Wampler, a former state senator, "by demonstrating to advanced manufacturers that they can locate at Commonwealth Crossing, generate investment, create jobs and be assured of a steady, reliable advanced manufacturing workforce."

Although NCI's plans to train people for high-tech manufacturing jobs are moving forward, the "center of excellence" designation is not yet certain.

According to Wampler, the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission has indicated it wants to name three such centers in Southside and southwest Virginia, and he hopes NCI will be one of them.

A tobacco commissions document shows a "center of excellence" is intended to be a best practices model for delivering skills training.

Wampler said that as far as he knows, the ARC money is not contingent on NCI being designated a center of excellence.  He is highly optimistic, though, that the tobacco commission eventually will bestow the designation on NCI.

"I think we'll put together a fantastic application (for the commission) to consider," he said.