SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville businesses lobby for downtown manufa - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville businesses lobby for downtown manufacturing, IT center

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Proposed 80,000-square-foot manufacturing and IT center at First and College streets in downtown Louisville Proposed 80,000-square-foot manufacturing and IT center at First and College streets in downtown Louisville
Paul Resch of Louisville manufacturer Dant Clayton Paul Resch of Louisville manufacturer Dant Clayton

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Dant Clayton, a 37-year-old Louisville company that manufacturers bleachers for sports stadiums, has added about 30 employees in the last three months at its factory off Algonquin Parkway.

In October, the company bought an Indianapolis-area business that makes architectural hand rails – a complement to its stadium products – and now Dant Clayton is considering bringing another 30 jobs to Louisville as a result of the purchase.

But the company, like many other local manufacturers, faces the nagging issue of finding qualified workers for its plant – from entry-level operators who can read tape measures and blueprints, to middle-skill employees who can use programmable cutting machines, to highly-skilled industrial technicians who keep factory equipment running.

“If we don’t do something collectively as a community – as business owners – the next five to 10 years, we’re going to miss the opportunity to have more manufacturing jobs here,” said Dant Clayton executive Paul Resch.

By doing something, Resch means building a $33 million “Manufacturing / IT Center” along I-65 on the downtown Louisville campus of Jefferson Community & Technical College.

Resch is among a handful of Louisville business leaders who, since January, have mounted a quiet but persistent campaign in Frankfort to win funding for the JCTC project in the two-year state budget that the General Assembly will finalize in coming weeks.

With 80,000 square feet, the proposed three-story building would consolidate the college’s certificate and two-year degree programs in a number of computer and industrial fields into a single location at First and College streets. If funding is secured, it could open as soon as the fall of 2018.

The building would accommodate a big expansion of a new apprentice-style program in which recent high school graduates train to become highly skilled industrial technicians while working at local manufacturers like General Electric.

Supporters describe the building as a "beacon" to attract high school graduates into solid, middle-income jobs -- from network administrators to welders and electricians.

“We need a facility that shows off how cool these technical jobs are…This cannot look like a 1950s grade school,” said Jim Lancaster, co-owner of Lantech, a Jeffersontown-area manufacturer. “This has got to be a modern facility with modern tools for manufacturing. It’s got to be visible from I-65. It’s going to show an investment in the community in this area, which is going to bring more manufacturing support.”

Executives involved in the funding push hail from some of the city’s biggest employers. Humana, UPS, and Norton Healthcare all want more information technology professionals in the local market.

At Humana, which has hired about 800 IT employees in Louisville in the last two years, the company hopes to reduce the three or four months it typically takes to fill a “mid-level IT position,” according to a statement from Roger Crude, the company’s executive vice president of human resources.

Meanwhile GE and Ford Motor Co., who have led the city’s manufacturing resurgence, want to increase the pipeline of qualified workers for their plants.

The Louisville region has led the state in manufacturing growth, adding more than 16,000 jobs, or 26 percent, since the worst of the recession in 2009, according to government statistics compiled by retired University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes.

“What we are seeing in the community is more and more resources being put to advanced manufacturing and making sure that we have the training facilities for the workforce that is really going to help us realize the boom that is taking place right now,” said Mayor Greg Fischer, another advocate for the JCTC project.

Yet, the push for the building comes at a time when the state’s colleges and universities are facing drastic cuts in their day-to-day operating funds, depending on the final version of the state budget.

Over the last decade, lawmakers have treated construction projects like a luxury the state can't afford.

Since the 2006-08 budget, the state has put money into only one new building at a community college: the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.

That $24 million project, which is under construction, played into Toyota’s decision to add production of the Lexus ES 350 at its Georgetown, Ky. plant last year.

Kevin Wardell, a retired Norton Healthcare executive who chairs JCTC’s board, said the college's supporters see two potential ways to fund the downtown Louisville building in the current legislative session, which ends in mid-April.

Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed two-year budget, unveiled in January, includes $100 million in new state debt to support capital projects related to workforce development.

The budget recommendation came a few weeks after Fischer and executives from GE, Humana, Ford and UPS, among other companies, met with Bevin, a Republican, and his top aides to pitch the JCTC project. 

In an interview earlier this month, Bevin said the JCTC project is “exactly the type of thing” that could be funded with the workforce money he proposed.

But the Democrat-led House of Representatives did not include the $100 million fund in its version of the budget passed last week.

Rep. Rick Rand, the House budget committee chairman, told WDRB last month that it was “highly unusual” for the governor to ask lawmakers to commit funding for construction projects without disclosing which projects would get the money.

But the Republican-controlled Senate will pass its own budget in coming weeks, followed by a negotiation between House and Senate leaders over the final document sent to Bevin’s desk.

That means there are plenty of chances for the workforce money to be restored, Wardell told the JCTC board at a meeting last week.

“This is all a dance. We just have to sit and wait as some things come through the House, some things come through the Senate,” he said.

Another possibility, Wardell said, is for the project to be written into the budget as a “line item.”

Wardell said no lawmaker has disagreed with the need for the project.

“It’s just a question of, how does it compete in an environment where there is not a lot of money?” he said. “The case is strong and the manufacturers are screaming loudly.”

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, said he "wholeheartedly" supports the project after meeting earlier this month with the business executives advocating for it.

"They make a compelling argument as to why they need this," McGarvey said.

He added that members of both parties ought to recognize the need for workforce training investments "if we really want to compete with states like Indiana and like Ohio."

Kentucky Community and Technical College System Vice President Tim Burcham, the system’s legislative liaison, said in the current budget environment, it takes sustained lobbying by employers to give projects like the JCTC building a chance at funding.

“The fact that it’s such a high priority for the business community in Louisville and the fact that they are in Frankfort, making these calls, making it known that it’s s a top priority, makes a big difference in the final consideration,” he said.

Other community colleges have manufacturing centers

It’s been about a decade since Louisville employers came together to push for a construction project for JCTC’s downtown campus.

At the urging of Louisville hospital executives, the state’s 2006 budget included funding for the 100,000-square-foot Allied Health and Nursing building at 2nd and Chestnut streets.

Six of the state’s 16 community colleges have buildings dedicated to manufacturing training, which Louisville lacks despite leading the state in factory employment.

But not all of the manufacturing training centers have lived up to expectations.

Businesses in Northern Kentucky spent a lot of “political capital” to get a manufacturing  center built on the campus of Gateway Community & Technical College in 2009, but six years after the building opened, it was only churning out about 200 qualified workers a year, about half of what was projected, according to a story last year by The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The problem was not in the center itself or its programming, but attracting students to enroll, the story said.

JCTC projects a 55 percent increase in graduates of its computer and industrial programs if the new building comes to fruition.

Yet, the college’s enrollment has steadily declined for the last five years as the job market has improved.

Last fall, JCTC’s enrollment was 12,277, a 20 percent drop from the fall of 2011.

Ty Handy, JCTC’s new president, said in an interview that attracting high school students into “STEM” fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – remains a challenge.

“That is a group that has been underrepresented in our economy for a long, long time,” he said.

Lancaster, who has been meeting lawmakers in Frankfort in support of the project and also serves on the JCTC board, said it will be up to companies like Lantech to help recruit bright high school students into the programs offered at the new building.

“We’ve got the jobs, and now we’ve got to feed them,” he said. “Otherwise what’s going to happen is, the manufacturers are going to go elsewhere to fill those jobs, and then it’s very hard to get them back.”

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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