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FORT SMITH -- A project in Fort Smith designed to help local students succeed in many different areas after graduation has received considerable help from the state.

Fort Smith School District Superintendent Doug Brubaker said Gov. Asa Hutchinson is committing $2.1 million for the Fort Smith Public Schools career and technology center during a workforce development announcement Thursday. A news release from the district states the money will come from the Office of Skills Development of the Arkansas Department of Commerce, and will be used to support purchasing advanced manufacturing equipment for the center.

"We are very grateful to the governor for this support, and these resources will be used to create a world-class career and technology education program for the benefit of students, their families and the communities in which they live throughout our region," Brubaker said.

The career and technology center is scheduled to open in Fall 2021, according to the release. When this happens, advanced manufacturing students can earn technical concurrent credit, industry-recognized certifications, certificates of proficiency, technical certificates and, potentially, associate degrees in one of three pathways: computer-integrated machining, automation/robotics and industrial maintenance. Work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities with area business and industry partners will also be available.

Brubaker said the school district began communicating with the community about the future of education in Fort Smith and Barling nearly three years ago. The end result was Vision 2023, a five-year strategic plan that included career planning as an area of focus. The plan was approved by the Fort Smith School Board in December 2017.

"And one of the key components of that plan, and the capital improvement plan adopted to support it, was the expansion of efforts throughout our region to prepare students for high tech careers, including a goal that seemed pretty aggressive at the time, a 50,000-square-foot career and technology center with a focus on the fields of advanced manufacturing, information technology and health care," Brubaker said.

In May 2018, residents of Fort Smith and Barling approved a millage increase to fund the project and others in the school district, Brubaker said. The increase, which moved the school district property tax rate by 5.558 mills from 36.5 to 42.058, will generate about $120 million, according to a previous Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette article.

Brubaker said in 2019, the estate of local businessman William L. Hutcheson gifted a 182,000-square-foot building to serve as the site for both the expansion of career and technology education programs and a new center for learning in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art, and math. The U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration awarded a $1.4 million grant for the project later that year as well.

"Several months ago, a group representing industry, K-12 and higher ed met with Gov. Hutchinson to discuss these plans to dramatically expand the bandwidth of workforce development programs in our area and connect ... more students to opportunity, which is central to our mission as a school district, as a result of bringing a new career and technology center online," Brubaker said.

Hutchinson said the project is important for the entire state, not just the River Valley and western Arkansas.

"We have a strong workforce that has experienced knowledge in manufacturing, and it is a growth sector for our state," Hutchinson said. "Manufacturing went down for some time, but you look at what's happening in manufacturing at Arkansas, it is coming back and it will continue to be strong because of workforce centers like this one."

Workforce training, Hutchinson said, continues to be a priority for both him and the Arkansas General Assembly. Arkansas has 530,000 people, or 18% of its workforce, that need workforce training.

"And we are concentrating upon that because that's the key to providing good job opportunities for them, but also to be able to recruit and support the industry that is so important in the River Valley," Hutchinson said.

In an email, Brubaker said the design process for an initial phase of the career and technology center project, which will be at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane in Fort Smith, is nearing completion.

"Once the design process is complete, bids will be solicited later this spring," Brubaker wrote. "A naming/branding process that has involved students, educators, business leaders, higher education representatives, and community members is also expected to conclude in the near future."

State Desk on 01/10/2020

Print Headline: State to commit $2.1M to career, technology center in Fort Smith, governor says

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