Trident Technical College’s strategy to fund the S.C. Aeronautical Training Center is a model for other Lowcountry organizations looking to fund expensive projects with state money, according to Rep. Jim Merrill.
The tri-county region used to have influential politicians including Glenn McConnell, Arthur Ravenel Jr. and Bobby Harrell on its side in the Statehouse.
“We don’t quite have the juice in some of the top areas that we used to have,” said Merrill, a Republican from Daniel Island.
Without high-ranking political allies, the way to get funding for big projects is to make the projects relevant to the entire state, Merrill said, which is what Trident Tech President Mary Thornley did when she asked the state to pony up 60% of the $80 million needed to build the S.C. Aeronautical Training Center.
“They went to Boeing, and they found a list of contractors who do work with Boeing, and lo and behold, you literally have subcontractors and vendors in literally every county in South Carolina,” Merrill said prior to the center’s groundbreaking last week. “When you go and you take those counties, that list to every member of the House and the Senate and you show them how important it is to their area, it’s easier to make that step, I promise you.”
Merrill said it also takes a collective, regional voice that speaks across party lines to get support for Lowcountry projects.
“Many of our projects right now, we don’t speak with one voice whatsoever. We speak with a multitude of voices,” he said. “When that happens, it makes it easier for the rest of the state to say, ‘You guys aren’t in agreement on this, so we’re not going to support it.’”
In addition to the $48 million given by the state, Trident Tech leaders induced Charleston County to add $19 million and North Charleston to give $1 million.
“They set a template for how we should have big projects approved in the state of South Carolina,” Merrill said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of problems coming up and a lot of challenges coming up, and we need to look over here at how we got this S.C. Aeronautical Training Center approved.”
The 224,000-square-foot center is expected to open in fall 2019 on Trident Tech’s main campus in North Charleston.
“We’re going to capture young people and inspire them to want to be in the aerospace business. Then we’re going to show them pathways to employment in those industries,” Thornley said. “Nothing could be more exciting.”
The center will be for more than just Trident Tech students.
“We’re going to conduct tours, hold workshops for school groups. We will offer summer camps with manufacturing and hands-on experience. There will be space for industrial manufacturing meetings, economic development discussions, vendor and supplier workshops and conferences, and other aviation and advanced manufacturing activities,” she said. “It will be a hub of the new aerospace advanced manufacturing industry.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the center is another example of Trident Tech helping to fill the workforce gaps.
“This college has never let us down. When we lost a major cooking, training institution, what happened? We built one here that our kids can go to for one-tenth of what they were paying to get that education. When we had a shortage in nurses, what happened? We’re here,” Summey said, referencing the college’s new nursing and science building. “Trident has come to the rescue every time. If we’re going to grow the aeronautics industry — and a lot of that technology crosses over into other endeavors as well — we have to prepare our people for those jobs. Trident, again, has stepped up to the table.”