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Not too long ago, in fall 2008, Portland Community College officials were poking around Columbia County as the college system sought voter approval for its landmark $374 million general obligation bond to expand its footprint and add services in the Portland metropolitan region.

PCC’s expansion plans included projects we believed would not have improved Columbia County residents’ access to PCC educational services, and we urged voters in the education district to reject the levy. For reference, district residents paid $1.3 million in taxes to PCC in fiscal year 2007-2008.

And the voters loudly signaled their frustration with PCC. Of the 17,791 voters to weigh in on the bond measure in Columbia County, 12,361 — a full 69.5 percent — turned it down.

Columbia County comprises a very small portion of the multi-county tax district for PCC, which is Oregon’s largest post-secondary educational institution. Despite the negative showing, the bond measure passed.

With little focus on Columbia County at the time, there was casual discussion about how the Columbia County areas included in the PCC district could secede from it. To do so would have taken an affirmation vote from the entire PCC district, an action that would have ultimately raised rates for property owners in other counties. It was an unlikely solution.

It wasn’t too long after the bond measure was approved that PCC officials reached out to us with a pledge, of sorts, to increase the college’s presence in Columbia County. Within a short amount of time, we learned PCC was working with a private developer to establish an educational center in Columbia County near Scappoose Industrial Airpark.

Despite several setbacks tied to opposition of the city’s plan to expand the urban growth boundary near the airport, including an expansion of land PCC is eyeing for a new center, PCC has remained committed to Columbia County.

PCC has now reached a point in its commitment to Columbia County where it has scheduled information-gathering meetings in which Columbia County residents can express their hopes and visions for the new PCC center, which is a cause for celebration.

And even beyond the meetings, PCC is actively working with local legislators, business leaders and county and school officials to integrate the demand for skilled workers with a PCC-sponsored training program. The fruits of that effort, if and when it is realized, would be a regional industrial sewing and training center.

The concept seems like a win-win. Local youth would gain access to a skilled trade, one local business and state employment officials are saying is in high demand. As a state and a nation, we could take a step toward reclaiming a textiles industry that seemingly has slipped overseas. Industrial sewers have a starting wage of $13 to $16 per hour, and an experienced sewer can earn up to $22 per hour, according to a release provided to the Spotlight.

As state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, explains, after years of outsourcing textile work to other countries, there is now a demand for industrial sewers in the U.S.

“Thirty years ago, a lot of this work went overseas. The quality has gone down, costs have gone up, and there are companies looking to locate in this country,” Johnson said in a prepared release.

Just some of the local companies anticipated to participate in this project include Oregon Aero, an aerospace engineering enterprise; world-famous puppet designer, Michael Curry Design; and high-end Scappoose-based custom boot manufacturer, West Coast Shoe Co., among others.

Johnson said a group of decision-makers met earlier this month at Oregon Aero and set plans to send a delegation to North Carolina State University to explore the industrial arts curriculum that school offers.

We are impressed with PCC’s investment and commitment in Columbia County, and are excited to see where its efforts — and the efforts of local business officials and legislators — lead.

To attend the upcoming PCC-sponsored meetings, please come to the Scappoose High School Library on Tuesday, June 10, or the St. Helens High School Library on Wednesday, June 11. Both events start at 6:30 p.m.

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