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Golden LEAF grant would help turn empty plant space into career center

Monday, March 12, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Cindy Frantz
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From: The McDowell News

Friday afternoon, local leaders were shown how the large Universal Bedroom Furniture plant could be transformed into a "Career Pathways Skill Center” providing much needed education and job opportunities for McDowell’s folks.

"It’s just a beautiful site,” said County Manager Chuck Abernathy as he led a tour of the place. "It is fascinating.”

And local officials are hoping to get more than $2 million in Golden LEAF Foundation money to help with the ambitious project.

In 1999, the N.C. General Assembly created the Golden LEAF Foundation to administer one-half of North Carolina’s share of a multibillion dollar settlement with tobacco manufacturers. From the beginning, Golden LEAF has used this money for projects that could benefit North Carolina’s long-term economy, especially those in rural communities that are economically distressed.

Golden LEAF Foundation’s Community Assistance Initiative is a grant-making process targeting economically distressed counties across North Carolina, such as McDowell. The initiative has a reserve of approximately $2 million per county, though grant award amounts may vary. For some time, a group of local officials and civic leaders has met to talk about what projects should be submitted to the Golden LEAF board.

At a Jan. 30 community forum, the group got feedback from Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach regarding several local projects being considered. The group of local leaders then chose the renovation of the old Universal Bedroom Furniture plant as the county’s project for Golden LEAF’s Community Assistance Initiative funding opportunity. McDowell County officials, with support from city of Marion and education leaders, hope to receive as much as $2.3 million for the upgrades to the old furniture plant. When completed, the site would become known as the Universal Career Pathways Skill Center and would provide more space for McDowell Technical Community College, which is landlocked.

In November, the commissioners voted 3-2 to purchase the Universal property. The county is planning to finance the $2.95 million purchase over a period of 15 years.

On Friday, Abernathy, who is also McDowell’s economic development director, led a group on a tour of the Universal site and described how it could be transformed. The group included City Manager Bob Boyette, City Planning Director Heather Cotton, School Board Chairman Russell Neighbors, Marion Business Association Director Freddie Killough, McDowell Tech trustee Annette Bryant and others.

Abernathy showed a portion of the plant that Morganton Pressure Vessels is now using as a warehouse. Tilson Machine Inc. is currently moving from its two old buildings in Old Fort to take over another section of the Universal property. Tilson plans to add 20 to 25 full-time computerized numerical controlled (CNC) machine operators. Abernathy said Tilson is installing its equipment in that section of the Universal building now.

The county will market other available spaces in the Universal building for possible industrial use. The leasing of these spaces will also provide revenue. The area behind the plant will be cleaned up and old boilers and silos will eventually be cleared out.

"In my mind, that comes out,” said Abernathy about the boiler and silo section. "That is pretty ugly right here.”

But an 80,000-square-foot section in the Universal building is being set aside for use by McDowell Tech. If awarded, the Golden LEAF money would be used for the renovation of this section. Both the interior and the exterior would be redone in order to provide more classroom space for McDowell Tech.

"It would be a complete redoing of this building,” said Abernathy.

The project could allow for the expansion of the Early College and vocational programs at McDowell Tech. The effort would also help the county school system. It is expected that some space at McDowell Tech would become available for use by the schools.

The tour on Friday included some of the land around the plant. The property has two 3-acre ponds located behind the old Universal plant with beautiful mountains in the background.

County officials have talked about a planned solar farm to be located on some of the land next to the Universal building. N.C. Renewable Energy, LLC would establish the farm. It would consist of solar panels that take the light of the sun and convert it into energy. The energy generated by the solar farm would be sold back to Duke Energy and is expected to create new jobs.

Abernathy said Friday that two solar farms are now in the works.

The Golden LEAF Foundation’s board of directors will consider the Universal project at the next regular meeting in early April, according to Pat Cabe, vice president of programs/community assistance & outreach for Golden LEAF.

Local officials feel that this project has a good chance of getting the money.

"It’s fair to say that the Golden LEAF staff reviewers think that the ‘Universal’ project is strong, but we will await the full proposal package in order to conduct additional due diligence and, as you know, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors makes the ultimate determination regarding funding,” Cabe told a McDowell News reporter.

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