Airglades may enhance iTech Glades’ chances at state

CLEWISTON — The five-county, $5.4 million application for Florida Jobs Growth Grant money to help establish an iTech Glades Technical College in Moore Haven already has been given close attention by state bureaucrats and legislators. But the spectacle of the Airglades International Airport groundbreaking last week between these two cities and the words of some of the leaders of that project should give state officials further impetus to invest more in Southwest Florida technical education.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Collier County School District
This is the Glades County Regional Training Facility as it looks now, with the iTech Glades Technical College logo superimposed.

Last fall, a Collier County School District team made a YouTube video to accompany the grant application and sway Florida legislators toward establishing a way to get their money’s worth out of the Glades County Regional Training Facility (GCRTF), which the state and local partners spent over $6 million building about six years ago. It had been idle much of that time until recently.

Several years ago, former Glades County Manager Paul Carlisle started lobbying the legislature to help them get some educational programming in place. When Mr. Carlisle left in 2018, then-Glades County Schools Superintendent Scott Bass took over spearheading the effort, and a trucking academy began conducting classes there. The GCRTF also was being used for some high school level training, citizenship and language courses. In the past 18 months or so, he and other like-minded officials struck out on a multi-county cooperation path to persuade the state to OK the grant and make the GCRTF an asset for the region.

Joining Collier, Glades and Hendry counties in the quest are Highlands and Okeechobee counties. With Collier County leading the way, they have submitted a request to the 2020 Legislature for more than $5 million to “improve, equip and staff the Glades County Regional Training Facility … which will establish a Glades County branch campus of the Immokalee Technical College, providing much needed post-secondary certified training for the surrounding region.”

Mr. Bass took a job in Indian River County last month, but during an interview before his departure, he said he’d gotten a call in early February from state education officials that was encouraging.

“As a result of that call, I am very optimistic that we will get some funding. It was a call to ask some follow-up questions about the project, and with the legislative session going on, and there is a push to put job growth grant money in the budget for next year. The legislators said, ‘Yes, but we’ll have you spend all the money that’s in there now.’ And there’s still about $31 million or so left there, and the fact that we got a call about certain things on the grant application — that, to me, is optimistic news that at least we are really in the running for trying to get this money.” Superintendent Bass said he thought there soon might be an announcement.

His last day in Glades County was Feb. 17, and no word came before then.

Airglades provides a big reason
At the groundbreaking ceremony March 2 for the combination new U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility/new airport terminal at the airport near Clewiston, several speakers talked about the need for more local training opportunities for highly skilled laborers due to all the ancillary businesses which will come in with the new U.S. Port of Entry facility that will accompany AIA’s expansion and conversion into a perishable-cargo hub for shipping by air.

Hendry County Administrator Jennifer Davis said: “The part that means so much for Hendry County and the entire region is that this project is going to bring diversification of economic growth and jobs that we need so greatly. As you all know, Hendry County has the highest unemployment rate in the State of Florida.

“I firmly believe that you have to build upon who you are in order to achieve success. We here in Hendry County, and also our neighboring county, Glades — we are agriculture. We manage commodities. It might be a little different from the sugar cane, cattle, vegetables and so forth and what we do now … but we know how to manage commodities that are products of agriculture. I don’t think there could be a better location than right here in Hendry County at Airglades airport, for this project. It’s a perfect combination, location and the people here who will be able to serve the project.”

Ford confident in facility’s future
Asked after the groundbreaking if he was aware of the iTech GTC application, AIA CEO Fred Ford said no, but he knows about the training center: “I think that the Glades training center ultimately will be the Airglades airport training center. You know, not operated by us, but that’s going to be a very significant venue for training for all different kinds of jobs here.”

He estimated that there will be 1,000 jobs connected with the project within the first year, heavy on the construction trades, but many more probably will be needed over time.

“More training has to become available in the area,” he noted. “And the people moving here know that, and they’re working with the locals. I know Commissioner (Michael) Swindle (Hendry County); he’s like the education czar for the county commission. There’s a lot of people that recognize that there are a lot of skills, like the aircraft mechanics — we don’t want just somebody who went through general training. They will get training in the specific skills they need to work on these kinds of airplanes,” Mr. Ford stated.

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