Construction has begun on McDowell Technical Community College’s new Old Fort Workforce Education Center in downtown Old Fort, NC, located in a 4,000 square foot section of the town’s Historic Rockett Building. T.C. Strickland Construction Company of Shelby is General Contractor for the project, which is expected to be completed in early 2024 at a cost of over $1,600,000. Holland and Hamrick of Shelby are serving as architects for the project and have worked closely with State Historic Preservation officials who were required to be part of the planning for the renovation due to the Rockett Building’s historic status.
The project is being funded by a grant of $691,420 from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, with $800,000 in matching funds provided by a Community-Based Grants Initiative Program of Golden Leaf Foundation. Additional funding of $385,000 is being provided by the Town of Old Fort, with an additional $69,000 from McDowell Technical Community College. Dogwood Health Trust provided assistance from its Leverage Fund to help support the college’s grant writing process. The NC Rural Center also offered assistance while the college was applying for Golden Leaf Funding.
“This is a great honor for the Town of Old Fort and its residents to have the first college presence in our town,” said Rick Hensley, Mayor of the Town of Old Fort. The Town of Old Fort will retain ownership of the building and has agreed to a long-term lease of the facility to McDowell Tech. As a major partner in the project, the Town has already assisted with early repairs to the building and drainage system as part of the initial phase of the renovation.
The EDA grant was funded by the American Rescue plan and EDA’s $300 million Coal Communities Commitment and was designed to increase workforce training opportunities and diversify regional economies. Golden Leaf funding for the project had similar objectives, focusing on workforce preparedness, job creation and economic investment and public infrastructure. Manufacturing, construction and trail development are major employment needs in McDowell County, and the Workforce Education Center will offer training and classes in these areas to promote local job creation.
For example, the new Center will offer construction courses aligned with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Certification curriculum, which covers such topics as Basic Safety and Introduction to Construction Drawings. This program is a prerequisite to all other craft skill curricula. The college will also offer a Certified Production Technician (CPT 4.0) program, a Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC) curriculum that increases a job candidate’s mastery of core competencies for advanced manufacturing production at all levels, from entry-level positions to front-line supervisors.
Third-party certifications from the American Heart Association (e.g. First Aid CPR) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (OSHA-10, a general safety and health hazards awareness program for entry-level workers), will enhance both the NCCER and Trail Construction and Sustainability Tracks, which will be a major focus of the Center.
Trail construction, outdoor recreation and ecotourism are quickly becoming a major economic driver in the region. Old Fort is surrounded by approximately 75,000 acres of protected woodlands in the Pisgah National Forest, making its trail network a popular attraction for outdoor enthusiasts. To meet the demands created by expected growth in the ecotourism industry and to foster timely, quality trail development, McDowell Tech has also established a workforce education program in trail construction and sustainability, only the second of its kind in North Carolina.
When the renovation and construction project is complete, Stacy Buff, Vice-President of Workforce Development at the college, will manage and coordinate coursework and training at the new facility. “We are so excited to finally have construction crews on site upgrading the Rockett Building for our new Workforce Education Center. It has been a long time in the making, but we couldn’t be happier to see our new partnership with the Town of Old Fort coming to fruition.”
The McDowell County Chamber of Commerce will also be a partner in the college’s economic development efforts in Old Fort, with a presence at the Workforce Education Center. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with MTCC and expand our presence in Old Fort!,” said Kim Effler, Executive Director of the Chamber. “This expansion signifies not just growth, but also a deepened commitment to supporting our local business community in Old Fort. Having a second office will undoubtedly enhance accessibility for entrepreneurs and stakeholders, making it easier for them to connect, collaborate, and thrive. The Chamber Board of Directors is in full support of this strategic move, which I believe will foster economic development and strengthen the bonds within our community!”
The complexity of working with state and federal agencies and grant-funding organizations necessitated that the college also work with other local entities for project assistance related to the Workforce Education Center. “Foothills Regional Commission is serving as administrator of the EDA grant and has been instrumental in moving the project forward. We are very grateful for their support,” said Madalyn Gaito, MTCC’s Director of Development, who, along with Buff and Ryan Garrison, MTCC’s Interim President, have led the college’s collaborative planning efforts for this project.
“We are truly grateful for all of the partners who have joined us to bring workforce training and education to residents of Old Fort and the surrounding area,” said Garrison. “This new center will help us build workforce capacity for our business and industry partners and economic growth in the western end of our county, but more importantly, will offer training that will promote socioeconomic mobility and family-sustaining wages for our students and their families. This is a game-changer for our county, and we are excited to finally see the light at the end of this construction tunnel.”