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Portera: Communiversity would be 'major new asset'

 

Golden Triangle Development LINK consultant Malcolm Portera discusses the new workforce training center for East Mississippi Community College with Lowndes County supervisors Tuesday morning.

Golden Triangle Development LINK consultant Malcolm Portera discusses the new workforce training center for East Mississippi Community College with Lowndes County supervisors Tuesday morning. Photo by: Zach Odom/Dispatch Staff

 

Nathan Gregory

 

Before Lowndes County supervisors approved a $10 million commitment toward what East Mississippi Community College and Golden Triangle Development LINK officials are referring to as a new Center for Manufacturing and Technology Excellence "on steroids," Malcolm Portera told them about a recent economy index that had Mississippi ranked dead last out of 50 states. 

 

Portera, a former president at Mississippi State University and the University of Alabama, said the index is about the economy of the future and what it's going to take to be competitive in an advanced manufacturing environment. 

 

"What we want to do here is to take our center for manufacture and technology excellence to a whole new level," Portera said. "I think it will be a resource that will not be matched in the rest of the South if we can pull this off." 

 

Pulling Communiversity off is not far from reality. State and federal funding totaling $24 million is being secured to fund the estimated $38 million project. With $11 in commitments from Lowndes and Clay counties already in place, LINK and EMCC officials will request $2.5 million in Communiversity over 15 years from Oktibbeha County officials next week. 

 

The facility is slated to open in 2017. 

 

EMCC Vice President of Workforce and Community Services Raj Shaunak said Communiversity is going to be more than just an expanded version of the current CMTE facility. It will be the basis for a "2+2+2" program EMCC is working to implement. That program is designed to reach out to high school students and engage them in the idea of advanced manufacturing as a career before enrolling them in their program and providing the skills and knowledge they need to either go straight to work or continue toward a four-year degree at a university. 

 

"It's going to be an imagination center," Shaunak said. "It's going to be a museum. We're going to bring young people in there to discover (locally made products). It is a community college and university put together, but more for this community. I want this whole community to think this is our university for anyone and everyone. We're saying it's available to the common person." 

 

The structure as proposed now would house a museum featuring products made in the Golden Triangle area from industries including Severstal, Paccar and Stark Aerospace among others, but will also house 15 bays for technology, engineering and manufacturing education. If all funding is in place when it is expected to be, ground could be broken on the new building late next year. 

 

EMCC's Manufacturing, Technology and Engineering Division, which merged nine credit and 22 non-credit courses last year, is soon to expand as the college prepares to add two more credit programs geared toward mastering the skills needed to gain employment in advanced manufacturing. The immediate need is to have a new place that can handle the program's rapid growth, Shaunak said, but the long-term vision is to create the environment to respond and adapt to the constant change of technology as it evolves. 

 

The program graduates about 150 people each year in one- and two-year credit programs but needs to push that number to 350 to replace vacancies in the industry the area already has now, he said. The program caters not only to high school students, but to displaced workers needing new skills and military veterans already equipped with skills needed to fill positions that come open today and in the future, he added. The 100-hour basic manufacturing skills course EMCC offers has a $120 charge, but fees are waived for displaced workers and veterans. 

 

"Buildings are transactional. We're talking about transformational stuff," Shaunak said. "The immediate need is more space, but that's not the vision. The vision is to have bigger and more of everything, and yet of things we don't even know about. Our laboratories and physical plant is too small to increase the numbers, whereas with technology increases, we're bringing in new equipment. To put in that new equipment, space is needed. The immediate thing is to increase the quality of our training." 

 

LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said while EMCC and the LINK are asking Lowndes County to step up to the plate in a big way by committing $10 million, he believes the county's decision to do so will reap major long-term benefits. 

 

"We're asking Lowndes County to do some very heavy lifting, but not without cause and not without reason," he said. "The last 10 to 11 years have been very good to Lowndes County. We're seeing the fruits of our labor coming in. This year, about $10 million was placed in the county's coffers in fee-in-lieus and ad valorem taxes on economic development projects over the last few years, and it's going up annually."

 

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.

 

 

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