Sunday, January 31, 2010

How do you spend an extra $21 million?

Orr seeks input on TVA revenue; advanced learning center popular
By Eric Fleischauer, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

What should a community do when it finds $21 million in the pocket of its trousers?

An expected change in the distribution of Tennessee Valley Authority in-lieu-of-tax proceeds may leave Morgan County with that question.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, wants the money to make a lasting difference.

A bill that has passed the House and that has strong support in the Senate would end the practice of distributing a portion of the TVA revenue to dry cities and counties not served by TVA. For Morgan County, the change would increase TVA proceeds by about $1.2 million in the first year, growing by about 5 percent per year after that.

The new money is enough to service a bond of about $21 million.

The bill provides that a local law would govern the allocation of the new money, which means the local legislative delegation gets to make the call.

“I think it’s an historic opportunity to do something that would enhance Morgan County for the people who live here,” Orr said.

His vision is to embrace a project that would benefit the entire county. What project?

“I’m not pushing one project or another,” Orr said. “Maybe it would be a basketball arena for tournaments. Maybe a state-of-the-art baseball facility. Maybe a collaborative effort among our three school systems to formulate a school of technology or robotics or engineering. Maybe a jobs training facility that will help bring new jobs in.”

Orr said he wants Morgan County residents to contact their legislators with ideas.

“If we don’t work together as a county, the money likely will be disseminated among the budgets of school systems, cities and the county,” Orr said. “It would be divided up so we could not have a large, visionary enhancement to the county. We’d end up with a new backhoe for a County Commission district. What do the citizens want?”

One of Orr’s ideas is a technology center providing specialized instruction for high school students anywhere in the county. Students would remain at their local schools, attending the new facility for a block of classes on certain days.

“I’m imagining a 21st Century technology institute that all the systems can participate in and have some real enhancements, so Danville High can send students to the Wallace Center (site) a few hours a week to participate.

‘Gold standard’

“It could be a gold-standard program on ‘X’, whether ‘X’ is robotics or technology or engineering or whatever, that sets us apart,” Orr said.

“But that’s just one idea. Maybe something entirely different.”

Orr said locating something at the vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center, a 160-acre site between Decatur and Hartselle on U.S. 31, might make sense. The state owns the land.

“A government entity can get a good price on that facility,” Orr said, “and it’s centrally located between the main population centers of Decatur and Hartselle.”

He said students could attend the center one or two days a week, while taking core classes at their home high schools. The center might, he said, feed some students to Calhoun Community College and to the robotics training center under construction there.

Tourist attractions

Tami Reist, director of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there are plenty of tourist-type attractions that would benefit the county — including completion of Ingalls Harbor — but she thinks an advanced learning center focusing on robotics would be best for the county.

“I have my passion for enhancing Ingalls, but I think something like this with robotics is going to give the technical training. It’s going to bring education into play,” Reist said. “Hopefully, from there we create a spinoff of companies that want to come to our city and locate here, which again brings more visitors in.”

Despite success with sports tournaments, Reist said, the events account for a small portion of visitors to Morgan County.

“When you look at tourism and you look at where all these people come from, industry is a majority of it.”

There is no better way to attract industry, said Morgan County Economic Development Association President Jeremy Nails, than increasing the engineering and technological skills of high school graduates.

“Anything that would give our students an edge on skills in robotics or engineering would be beneficial for the county as a whole when it comes to trying to recruit businesses,” Nails said. “One of the first things they look for is the education of the workforce that’s coming out of our high schools.”

To successfully recruit industry, a community must be able to distinguish itself.

“That’s what economic development is all about: trying to find your niche and set yourself apart. You can’t be Huntsville or Birmingham or Mobile, so how can you distinguish yourself, not only from the rest of the state but the rest of the world?”

Combined with the robotics training center under construction at Calhoun Community College and successful high school robotics programs in Decatur and Priceville, Nails said, an advanced learning center would give Morgan County a dramatic advantage in competing for the many industries that rely on robotics.

The beauty of an advanced learning center, said Sheila Davis, chairman of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, would be its flexibility. Robotics is the hot industrial recruitment tool of the day, but the curriculum could fluctuate as student interests and economic opportunities change.

Davis, who has coordinated high school students and industries on workforce development issues for a decade, said she finds pockets of interest from students that no single high school can accommodate.

“For example, I get lots of questions about culinary skills,” Davis said. “With an advanced learning center that would be possible.”

Orr’s idea of an advanced learning center at the Wallace Center received a lukewarm reception from superintendents of the three school systems in Morgan County.

Proration problems

Sam Houston, superintendent of Decatur City Schools, said the most pressing need is to increase funding for a proration-strained budget.

“I appreciate Sen. Orr’s vision in trying to come up with a project that benefits the entire county,” Houston said. He said Decatur City Schools already does an excellent job educating high school students in pre-engineering and robotics fields.

Along with the superintendents of Hartselle City Schools and Morgan County Schools, he sent an e-mail to Orr suggesting the money — none of which has to go to the schools — would be more useful to fund a program reducing dropout rates in the three systems.

“I’m not closing the door on (an advanced learning center) concept,” said Hartselle City Schools Superintendent William Michael Reed.

“We’re just taking another approach to it. We’re not closing the door on Sen. Orr’s original concept, we’d just like this other thing to be looked at, too.”

Davis said her experiences, both in workforce development and as a parent, suggest an advanced learning center would confront the dropout problem at the same time it gave the county’s most talented students opportunities to advance their skills.

Orr said he likes the idea of an advanced learning center, but his main concern is that the new revenue go to a project that Morgan County residents want.

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