As the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center readies for the start of its second year of classes, its director and supporters are looking at how to build on a successful first year.
Peaslee director Marvin Hunt takes pride in successfully getting the 17,000-square-foot center open a year ago after he was hired in 2014 to guide the final push to launch the skills training center, which the city of Lawrence, Douglas County, Lawrence chamber of commerce, Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County and numerous local companies had worked to establish.
Hunt recalls sweeping up and then removing hundreds of scoop-shovels full of accumulated dust from the floor of the building at 2920 Haskell Ave. that stood empty for years after Honeywell Avionics moved from the site.
“A vacant industrial building can get in pretty bad shape,” he said.
Hints of that condition remain in the unused portions of the building where spaghetti strands of unconnected wiring still hang from the ceiling. The mostly untouched appearance of those spaces is in stark contrast to the bright classrooms and labs where students learn hands-on skills in the building trades, industrial engineering technology and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Peaslee students also took welding classes at Lawrence High School and allied health or emergency medical services classes online and next door at the Lawrence College and Career Center.
In addition, Peaslee offers noncredit career courses in problem solving, workplace conflict resolution, financial literacy and career building free through the sponsorships of Emprise Bank, Hunt said.
Hugh Carter, chamber vice president of external affairs, said the first-year success was realized despite Peaslee opening on a shoestring budget of $1.2 million after an application for a $10 million U.S. Department of Labor grant wasn’t approved.
He and other Peaslee advocates have a long-range plan on how to build on the momentum of the first year and grow the tech center into a model nationwide, Carter said. That required seeking more money to take care of immediate needs from some of the same private sources who helped fund its opening, he said.
The fundraising effort was successful in procuring $50,000 for needed improvements to prepare for a new tenant the space at Peaslee that racing wheel manufacturer HiPer Technologies formerly leased. HiPer Tech moved out of the center when Weld Wheels purchased the company earlier this year.
Peaslee may be close to success on that front. Hunt said the president of an East Coast company toured Peaslee last week, and he was “confident” a new lease holder soon would be found for the space. A new tenant would not only help Peaslee’s bottom line through lease payments, but also with utility and maintenance expenses, he said.
Carter said with that need addressed, additional money was being sought to make Peaslee’s air-conditioning unit more efficient, remove unused mechanical elements from the roof and complete other repairs.
A further step to putting Peaslee on sounder financial ground would involve asking the city and county to assume the note taken out for the building so the center could take advantage of better interest rates offered to local governments, Carter said.
None of those issues detract from Peaslee’s success in forging relationships with its classroom instruction providers, Hunt said. Neosho County Community College offers the allied health, HVAC, building trades and welding classes, Flint Hills Technical College of Emporia the industrial engineering technology classes, and Johnson County Community College provided refresher academic courses in biotechnology, writing and various math classes.
The partnership arrangements allow Peaslee to offer skills training locally by cherry picking courses offered elsewhere in the state, Hunt said.
“We can contract with community colleges to come teach what we think is needed in the community,” he said. “It wasn’t just me (selecting classes). It was me and a lot of people. When I entered the picture in 2014, the chamber, EDC and a lot of industry partners were in discussions about what skills were needed. I selected the ones I thought would get the strongest response.”
The center successfully added another course during its first year with the introduction of the HVAC lab in January, Hunt said. That lab was made possible through a donation from Smitty Belcher, owner of P1 Group Inc. in Lawrence.
First-year enrollment numbers indicate Hunt was successful in identifying the right mix of skills training.
“We didn’t know how many students would respond before last August,” Hunt said. “I thought before we opened, we would be a success if we had 100 students. We had 150.”
This year’s enrollment should easily top that.
“I had thought a good enrollment number would be 200,” he said. “It looks like we could grow beyond that, maybe to the mid-200s.”
The student population has been diverse, Hunt said.
“We get 16- and 17-year-old high school students who walk over from the Lawrence (school district) College and Career Center in classes with a 70-year-old,” he said. “The average age of our students is 31.”
Peaslee has attracted many nontraditional students looking for retraining after getting laid off or seeking better opportunities through a career change, Hunt said. The highly motivated students help fill Peaslee’s labs for HVAC and industrial engineering technology, which trains them in the maintenance of such things as three-phase electrical motors, pneumatics, hydraulics and electronics.
“Some people don’t think that’s very sexy, but they can leave here and make very good money,” he said. “Companies place a great value on people who can keep products moving out the door.”
The goal is to add electrical, plumbing and auto mechanics, Carter and Hunt said. That will require another round of private fundraising, architectural designs, renovations and contracts for certified instruction.
The loss of HiPer Tech along with a better understanding of true operational costs with the center’s opening contributed to Hunt asking for additional financial support for 2017 from Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, Hunt said. The city and county responded by approving $245,105 in funding for next year.
Carter said Peaslee would continue to seek such funding from the city and county for several more years. The ultimate goal is to secure more dependable funding through a countywide economic development tax with some of the revenue dedicated to Peaslee, he said.
The additional city and county money is also to help with the expense of adding those programs.
“It would require a countywide vote,” he said. “It’s not something that will be on the ballot anytime soon. It’s the ultimate solution for predictability and dependability.”