Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OCTC Campus in Hancock County Critical Tool for Regional Economic Development

Hancock County leaders are taking a different tack to secure work force training and other postsecondary education opportunities closer to home.

A delegation representing Hancock County met last week with Gov. Steve Beshear to seek his support for state funding to cover start-up costs for an Owensboro Community & Technical College satellite campus.

The satellite community college campus is regional in its scope, said Mike Baker, executive director of the Hancock County Industrial Foundation.

"The project involves a real cross section of the community, and we were all there to meet the governor with a common vision," Baker said of the meeting with the governor. "That's one of the aspects that really resounded with him."

Attending the Frankfort meeting, in addition to Baker, were Jack McCaslin, Hancock County Judge-Executive; Scott Lewis, superintendent of Hancock County Public Schools; Dave Whitmore, Century Aluminum manufacturing manager; Nick Brake, president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp.; and Larry Durrence, interim president of OCTC.

"Some of the governor's staff asked Mike (Baker) for more information, and he is getting that," McCaslin said. "I think once they get some numbers, we'll see some things start happening. ... He (Baker) got the ball rolling."

The on-site training is critical to preserving high-wage, aluminum and energy industry jobs and attracting more industries to Hancock County, officials said.

The satellite location also will help high school students get a leg up on postsecondary training and education.

"What we have learned is that Hancock County's existing work force is getting older, and a large percentage, perhaps more than 40 percent, could retire in the next three years," said Durrence. "If they lose that much of their work force, it will be critically important to have trained employees to replace it."

A lack of ready and trained workers could cause industries considering Hancock County to look elsewhere, Durrence said.

"This is a great opportunity to accelerate the training opportunities in the community," Baker said. "These industries work 24/7, and having training available closer to home can have real value."

OCTC has no money to lease a building, and it takes years to get a building approved in the state capital budget process, Durrence said. Plus, the state does not have money for new projects.

The consortium has located a building in the Lewisport Shopping Center on U.S. 60 that could be remodeled, Baker said.

That led to the meeting with the governor.

The satellite campus would allow Hancock County to bring classes for high school students and local industries under one roof, Baker said.

"When you have a project and you are looking for several million dollars to build buildings, there is a right and wrong time to do that," Baker said. "We decided to take a different approach to accomplish the same objectives."

Hancock County Fiscal Court and the business community would share in the expenses. The group is seeking state funds for the facility's lease, utilities and other costs.

"Fiscal Court is very excited about this project," McCaslin said. "We've been trying to get state funds for a technical school on our high school campus for years, and every time we rise to the top of the funding pile, the bottom falls out of the economy."

The OCTC campus would help to supply existing industries with a skilled work force, the judge said.

"The big thing is that we have about 3,000 jobs for, not only our county residents, but also the surrounding counties," McCaslin said. "Sometimes we tend to forget our existing industries, and we don't want to do that."

The county government, school system, community college and industries "will all throw some money into this," he said.

"Even though we (OCTC) have no money for a facility, we are committed to providing the instructional aspects of the satellite campus," Durrence said. "We want to be a good partner with them."

OCTC will provide some equipment and instructors, he said.

"I really hope we can keep this moving forward," Durrence said.

More college credits in high school

Lewis is excited about the potential for Hancock County High School students if a satellite community college campus is established.

"This is my fourth year as superintendent, and getting a vocational school has been a priority for me because of the industry we have here," Lewis said. "We want to make sure we graduate our high school students and they have the opportunity to stay here -- and that we continue to have those high-paying jobs for them."

The OCTC satellite campus would allow local industries to train their employees close to their jobs and not have them gone all day, Lewis said.

The high school now has three vocational courses -- information technology, nursing and mechatronics.

"We added mechatronics last year in our maintenance garage because we don't have room," Lewis said.

The project also will help the school district fulfill its vision for high school students to be able to take up to 60 college hours and have about two years of college credits "paid for" by the time they graduate, the superintendent said.

"We're getting very close to having that plan worked out," Lewis said. "Students can do that now, but they pay for it. This would cost the school district, but it would be free to students."

The goal is for high school students to have the opportunity "to graduate with a vocational certificate and be employable or to have enough college credits to be close to an associate's degree," he said.

Currently, students who are dually enrolled are "ones who would go on to college anyway," he said.

Local educators want to see more of their students who may not have thought about college to learn that they can succeed.

"A lot of our kids -- they may be the first in their families to go to college," he said.

The high school already has begun to align its curriculum with OCTC's, Lewis said.

"At the same time, that increases our rigor," he said. "We've done a good job of doing that in elementary and middle school, but our high school had stayed the same until now."

Joy Campbell, 691-7299,