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RCTC workforce center project makes funding list

By Heather J. Carlson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

A new workforce center addition and upgrades to nursing labs are among the more than $4.7 million in construction project funding Rochester Community and Technical College will be looking for next legislative session.

The college’s requests are part of a larger $397 million bonding request being made by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. That ranks as the most expensive request ever submitted by the system. So why the high price tag?

MnSCU Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Allan Johnson said the age of the system’s schools is a major factor. The vast majority were built in the late 1960s and early1970s. They are in needs of repairs and upgrades.

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"We have a lot of campuses that have significant renovation and modernization and simply upkeep needs," he said.

Another reason is a backlog of projects. Five projects totaling $45 million were vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty twice — both in 2008 and 2009. That included $525,000 to upgrade nursing labs at RCTC.

MnSCU received more than $700 million in bonding requests from its 32 campuses across the state. All projects were scored and prioritized based on the Board of Trustees criteria that took several factors into consideration. They include whether the project will increase access and opportunity for students and whether it provides programs and services integral to the area’s economic needs. As a result the projects are focused primarily on repairing and renovating existing buildings — not building things like stadiums.

"It’s meat and potatoes type of work," Johnson said.

New workforce center

In the case of RCTC, several of its proposed projects made the bonding request list. The largest of these is an $8.5 million plan to build a 25,000-square-foot addition to Heintz Center to create a workforce center. The school is looking for $3.2 million from the state for its portion, with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development expected to chip in the remainder. The project was ranked as priority 23 out of 31.

Under the plan, the Rochester’s Workforce Development Inc. would relocate to the new space. Marilyn Hansmann, RCTC’s vice president of finance and facilities, said the project would be a major boost for students about to graduate who are looking for work. Right now the college has no career placement office.

"They have a lot of resources that our students probably don’t take advantage of now because it’s inconvenient or hard to find," she said.

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For Workforce Development Inc., the project offers the chance to directly connect clients with training and education opportunities, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Randy Johnson. It comes at a time when the center is witnessing a skyrocketing number of unemployed or underemployed residents seeking job assistance.

"The doors have been blown off lately. It’s something else. In 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like this," Johnson said. "Our connection with the college is even more important now than ever."

Work on the project has been going on for more than 5 years. The workforce center addition has already received $200,000 from the Legislature for design planning. At one point, plans had called for an 85,000-square-foot addition to house not only the workforce center but also a Career and Technical Education Center for Rochester Public Schools. It would have also been home to the Boys and Girls Club and Head Start programs. But due to the school district’s tight budget, plans for the education center have been put on hold for now with the hope of doing the project in the future, Hansmann said. The Boys and Girls Club and Head Start ultimately decided to do their own building project.

Other RCTC projects in the running for bonding dollars include nearly $1 million for renovations at its Plaza Building and Memorial Hall. Those renovations would include updating the mechanical and electrical system to take advantage of a new local steam pipe project. It would also include the installation of a 10-kilowatt wind turbine that would generate energy and could also be used for student training, Hansmann said.

Rochester DFL Sen. Ann Lynch, who serves on the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said she expects committee members to begin touring the state to look at these proposed projects this fall. She said she believes the workforce project has a very good chance of getting funding in 2010.

"There is a lot of interest and energy behind the project because there is so much focus — and needs to be rightly so — on jobs," she said, "and I continue to think that is going to be the key to turn things around in Minnesota and in this country.

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