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Riley thinks big on robotics center
His vision exceeds Calhoun proposal, but Decatur college faces competition

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com· 340-2432

Gov. Bob Riley didn’t need to be sold on a proposed robotics center during a meeting with Calhoun Community College officials and local leaders.

But Riley’s vision for the center was grander than anything anyone at Tuesday’s meeting at Calhoun’s Aerospace Training Center had expected or proposed.

The meeting included state Sens. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Tom Butler, D-Madison.

“I want this to be the best in the United States,” Riley said.

When Mary Yarbrough, dean of Technologies and Workforce Development, pitched Calhoun’s 10 acres on the north end of campus adjacent to the ATC as a possible site, Riley’s response was that he didn’t think that would be sufficient for the center he envisions.

Tom Corts, interim chancellor of the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, suggested spending between $15 million and $25 million on the first phase.

“I’m thinking of more of a campus that will give us room to grow and expand year after year and become almost a Southeast regional center for robotics,” Riley said.

After the meeting, Calhoun President Marilyn Beck said she thought the Decatur campus probably could add 5 to 10 acres to Yarbrough’s total.

If that isn’t enough, Beck said, “We’ll find the land.” She said the important thing is to have the center in North Alabama with Calhoun involved. One suggestion made after the meeting is the now vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center property. The state closed the center in 2003, and owns 159 acres along U.S. 31 on the south side of Decatur.`

Riley said Calhoun has “four or five” competitors for the robotics center, which he wants to be the only one in the state. While he didn’t mention them specifically, some of those community college competitors are thought to be Wallace State in Hanceville, Bevill State in central Alabama and Shelton State in Tuscaloosa.

Corts said several four-year engineering universities might want the center, too, but he believes community colleges would be better suited because of their ability to be flexible and provide work-force training for business and industry.

Riley said, however, that North Alabama is preferable because of Huntsville’s high-tech community and the area’s industrial base. He said the center could become key in research and development in robotics, along with its work force development focus.

In her presentation, Yarbrough said Calhoun has assets that make it the preferred location:

  • Robotics already is part of the school’s curriculum. School officials would like to develop a core curriculum in technology, giving students a base in quality control, safety, lean manufacturing and blueprints.
  • The faculty is experienced in robotics.
  • The college has the flexibility to meet the work-force education needs of local businesses and industries.
  • The college already has the strong community, industrial, business and education partnerships that a center would need to be successful.
  • Yarbrough said Calhoun is already a member of the Alabama Workforce Development Regional Advisory Council. The college is also the lead organization in the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development initiative, WIRED, which takes a regional approach to developing a labor force able to help U.S. companies compete globally.

    Yarbrough said Calhoun is also in the center of the commuter pattern for those employed in Huntsville and living throughout north-central Alabama.

    After the meeting, Decatur Mayor Don Kyle said he knows of a multitude of plants that use robotics and are within a day’s drive from his city.

    “And we’re located right in the middle of the Southeast and within reach of the Southwest, Midwest and the lower end of the Northeast,” Kyle said.

    Jim Bolte, vice president of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Plant in Huntsville, said a robotics center would be the first of its kind in the country and his company would bring people in from other states for training.

    Yarbrough added that Pryor Field, beside the main campus, would give Toyota a place to fly those employees in.

    State Board of Education member Mary Jane Caylor proposed forming a task force to study the robotics center proposal.

    “We’ll make this an agenda item at the next (BOE) meeting,” she said.

    Riley didn’t give a timetable for a decision on where to put the center but said it could
    coincide with a proposed bond issue the state Legislature is expected to consider at its spring session.

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