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Officials say new Advanced Manufacturing Research Center will boost industry, well-paying jobs

A sea change could be on the horizon for Columbia County.

Portland Community College officials announced Thursday, March 3, that the Oregon Legislature committed $7.4 million to help build an Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in the county. That money will be coupled with $9.4 million in PCC bond money already set aside for the college to build a facility in the county.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SYLVIA KELLEY - The Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Sheffield, England, would be a model for a similar site in Columbia County. Portland Community College recently secured $7.4 million from the state to combine with bond funds to build an AMRC in the county. The news was long-awaited, but it also surpassed all expectations.

After voters approved a 2008 bond measure, PCC committed to building an educational facility in the county by 2017, but it was unclear what or where the new site would be.

For years, residents expected PCC to develop a new site near the Scappoose airport — a largely undeveloped swath of land primed for industrial development.

By early 2016, PCC still had yet to make an announcement about any new development in Columbia County.

A trip to Sheffield, England in late January turned the tide.

A group of 22 representatives from Oregon, ranging from lawmakers to higher education officials, visited an AMRC in Sheffield.

The center was the brainchild of the University of Sheffield and The Boeing Company, and was created to house innovative research for industries like aerospace, which relies heavily on machining and manufacturing. England's facility is an innovative workforce training center that allows university students to earn credit while training directly with companies like Boeing and Rolls Royce. Those companies then hire the students they train.

Rising from an industrial past

Developed in 2001 on the 400-acre decommissioned Orgreave Colliery coal mining and coking site that once boasted a large percentage of the region's industrial steel manufacturing, the AMRC has help revitalize Sheffield's economy and reposition the urban city from a place with staggering unemployment to a rapidly-growing leader in technology and innovation.

Sheffield's AMRC now employs 2,000 engineers and apprentices, according to PCC. The center also gives 500 manufacturing companies access to training and innovation. Consequently, other small businesses around the region have benefited. It's estimated the center has had a $1 billion impact on Sheffield's economy over the last 15 years, PCC reported in a news release.

JOHNSON“I'd come to the conclusion we needed to see it,” Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said Friday. “We all flew over to London and took the train up to Sheffield. I had been advocating for this so hard at the Legislature, I knew I wanted to go.”

A skilled workforce for the future

Prior to the trip, representatives from Boeing and the University of Sheffield met with regional college and university officials to discuss training programs, said Sylvia Kelley, interim president of PCC.

“[Boeing] knew that half of their workforce was going to be retiring soon and they needed skilled workers to fill those roles,” Kelley said. KELLEY

When Kelley and others saw the AMRC's training and development programs first-hand, they were sold.

“The most exciting thing was talking to students,” Kelley said. “We were upstairs, looking down and it's a huge open glass structure that you can look down into all of the different work spaces and all of the different training and equipment. It was almost a small city of operations that were going on, with instructors and students and companies.”

Boeing, which operates a processing center in Gresham, has already signaled its support for an AMRC in Oregon and would likely be a partner, PCC officials stated last week. An AMRC in Columbia County could help bolster the skilled labor available to Boeing and other high-caliber manufacturing companies, while giving them the space for research and development.

“Initial efforts will focus on training for students through industry-sponsored skilled apprenticeships that lead to postsecondary credentials and family-wage jobs,” Kate Chester, a PCC spokeswoman, stated in a news release last week. PCC will be the accrediting partner, while Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology will lead advanced manufacturing research.

The long-term goal is to develop an Oregon Manufacturing Innovation District, which would attract several companies and partners at the center, the release explains.

Specific plans for the site are still being developed, but will be modeled after the center in England.

'A transformational opportunity'

While England's research center was born out of the ashes of former industry, Columbia County's facility will likely be built in an area with untapped potential.

The college hasn't named a development site yet, but Scappoose officials say it will likely be built around the city's newly expanded Urban Growth Boundary near the airport.

“I think this is the dream development that we dreamt of landing on the east side of the airport,” Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge said. “I can't imagine anything better coming.”BURGE

The project brings welcome prospect of manufacturing jobs to Columbia County, but the area will have to work out a few kinks.

The land eyed for development by PCC currently sits outside city limits. The land could easily be annexed into the city, Burge noted, after residents recently voted to allow a more lenient annexation process.

There's also the issue of limited housing and public transit options.

If an AMRC in Scappoose supports hundreds or even thousands of new jobs, Highway 30 could become heavily congested.

“This is a transformational opportunity for the region,” Johnson said, but acknowledged the need to explore additional transit options.

Burge and Scappoose City Manager Michael Sykes said a new bypass could be an option, if it could provide access to the airport without jeopardizing Crown Zellerbach Trail.

Scappoose must also bring its water supply up. Last year, in the wake of a statewide drought, the city called for voluntary water conservation. Scappoose has also initiated well rehabilitation projects and new wells, to meeting increasing demands on the city's water supply.

PCC must submit a business plan to the state before funds can be released. Chester said the college expects to have a plan completed by the end of May.

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