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Playing the politics game for robotics at Calhoun
Decision-makers think the college is in a good position

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The prize is a robotics campus with programs to prepare people for jobs that make and use the automated mechanical devices in modern business and industry.

Keys to the prize involve contacts, money and persuasion that convince decision makers that your place is the right place to locate the prize.

The catch is that when you want the prize, others probably do, too.

Enter the game of politics in education decision-making.

As early as last May, Gov. Bob Riley was suggesting that Decatur might be the ideal place for his dream of a world class robotics center. The governor was in Decatur pitching for a second term then and only suggesting. He couldn’t commit to the robotics center because, he said, he couldn’t tell then-Chancellor Roy Johnson where to put it, and of course, there was money.

Less than a month into his second term and sloughing off speculation that he may be tapped for the vice president’s slot on the Republican ticket, Riley was at Calhoun Community College last week with a new post-secondary chancellor, Thomas Corts, retired president of Samford University.

Tuesday when Calhoun pitched plans for a robotics center on a 10-acre piece of campus property, college President Marilyn Beck invited Boeing Co. and Toyota executives to help. Riley said 10 acres is not a big enough dream. He wants a much larger campus. He mentioned Wallace State at Hanceville more than once.

Other possible locations include Gadsden State Community College, Bevill State Community College in the Birmingham area and Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.

Democrats control the Legislature and the Legislature appropriates the money. Enter the former lieutenant governor and governor; now Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., and Sen. Zeb Little, one of the most powerful men in the Senate. Both are Cullman countians and they are political allies with other Senate key players. If The University of Alabama system or Auburn University makes a pitch, legislative clout widens.

Riley will have to deal to get his education bond issue and the posturing has already begun with Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, prefiling the Democratic bond issue bill.

“It is something that will cost money, but it will be kind of a glamour spot in the Southeast,” Corts said Thursday.

Calhoun may be the place, but other colleges are likely to join in the competition for a prize that could include a robotics campus with separate programs for different robotics applications. Corts estimated that the first phase alone could cost $15 million to $25 million.

Governor’s vision

The governor’s vision includes a campus of many different robotics programs that will not fit on the current site. Beck said the college will acquire the land if its current land holdings are not enough.

Corts said Riley was interested in a robotics center in July 2006.

“The first day he talked to me about this job, he mentioned the robotics center,” Corts said. “He wants something to serve the entire region and not just Alabama. It was on his list.”

Corts does not believe the governor has made up his mind on a location, but he believes the decision hinges on Riley.

The chancellor said he believes a local area that offered a significant amount of money, say $5 million, would send a message about the area’s ability to carry out the project. Funding also would likely involve a combination of local, state, federal and bond funds.

Corts said he wants the center to be part of the two-year college system and believes Calhoun has advantages because it already has a robotics program and has strong support from key area leaders. He said the type of education that two-year colleges offer, with rapid, specialized training programs for industry, is a good fit for the robotics center.

Although Calhoun’s site is smaller than Riley wants, Beck said the college will find the land that fits the governor’s vision.

Corts also has concerns that engineering schools at state universities may eye the program, so he feels the need to move forward in the next few weeks with a study committee to look at the issue.

“As this gets more public, there will be a lot of temptation to say, ‘This is the perfect place. Put it here,’ ” Corts predicted. “If Vicki Hawsey were here, she would say put it at her campus.” Hawsey is president of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville.

State Board of Education member Mary Jane Caylor, whose district includes Calhoun, said Riley mentioned a robotics center while campaigning in North Alabama last fall and Beck began developing plans as a result. Other campuses want the location as well, she said.

“The governor had obviously been contacted by people in Cullman and Hanceville who have some robotics and Gadsden is interested, too,” Caylor said. “But it will be regional, and I think Calhoun has the lead on this.”

Caylor agreed with Corts that money will be the determining factor in the center’s location.

Beck said Calhoun lies in the center of the business and industry corridor that uses the most robotics.

“One of the major reasons for the Calhoun connection is that we already have a foundation in our schools and colleges for robotics and a program at the college,” Beck said. “We are ready to do this.”

Area lawmakers who attended Tuesday’s robotics presentation feel Calhoun is in a good position.

Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, said the college’s physical location next to an airport and major roads make it appealing. Calhoun’s industry and community support, evident at the meeting with Riley, is also a plus, the lawmaker said.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he believes Calhoun is up to the challenge of the governor’s dream of a multi-state robotics campus.

No commitment

Riley said Friday said he has not shopped the robotics center nor has he made up his mind about where it should go. He said he feels strongly that the center needs to be located at a college but he has made no commitment.

“I can promise you that we will put a team together to look at options first,” he said. “A campus atmosphere is important and room to grow is important.”

The governor said he first considered a robotics center while talking to small business people who told him if they lose someone with robotics skill, it is hard to get a trained technician replacement. He believes in the future small and large concerns will use robots.

“I want this to be one of the leading centers in the country, and I don’t want centers scattered around the state,” Riley said. “I want only one.”

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