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Robotics center near here?
Riley wants multi-training program campus near Huntsville; no commitment for Decatur

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Bob Riley said he has preliminary plans for a campus-style robotics center that includes two components, one for rapid workforce training and possibly another offering advanced degrees.

Riley said Thursday that he wants the center to be near Huntsville, a city where aerospace and technology research programs are “doing great things.”

The governor said plans on his desk include both components at a center with a campus-style environment and room to grow.

The governor pitched the idea of the center during several pre- and post-election trips to Decatur. He always stops short of any commitment for the River City and has suggested he will require cities to compete for the program.

Riley wants the rapid training program to train 750 people in skill areas where there is “a dramatic shortage” of people with training that industry needs. That component would include short-term training in programs no longer than one to two years.

The governor said industry leaders tell him they are interested in the advanced-degree component, including degrees beyond community college certificates where they could send their employees for more education.

“Industry leaders tell me there is nothing like what we envision anywhere in the country,” Riley said.

He sees the center as an economic tool for the entire state.

Riley said the plans are “really looking great,” but key components for the center are unknown.

The unknowns include location and funding. Riley has access to state bond funds to help pay for capital projects, but he did not say if he planned to use bond funds.

He talked about a robotics center during a Jan. 24 meeting at Calhoun Community College where college officials showed him the college’s existing robotics program. At that meeting, Riley said he envisioned something larger than Calhoun’s proposal, with more room to grow.

Riley did not say how much he thinks the center would cost. Thomas Corts, who was two-year college interim chancellor at the time of the Calhoun meeting, estimated phase-one costs at $15 million to $25 million.

Calhoun President Marilyn Beck said if her college site is not big enough, the college would “find the land.”

At a two-year college meeting in Montgomery in mid-May, Beck said she was still interested in the center. Calhoun’s existing robotics program, faculty with robotics experience, and community and industry support are pluses, she feels.

Riley said several colleges are interested in the center, however, he declined to elaborate.

The governor said the need for a robotics center became apparent to him as he talked to employers across the state who use robotics.

“If you go into any large workplace using robotics, such as the automotive industry, they will have 1,500 or so robots,” Riley said.

In smaller companies that have 50 or fewer robots, however, Riley said employers told him they have trouble finding trained employees. For that reason, the governor said he wants the robotics center to incorporate programs for large industry, but also smaller employers who do not have in-house resources.

Regina Wright contributed to this article

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