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Decade-long journey ends with opening of Woodall ATC

Hattiesburg – The Woodall Advanced Technology Center (WATC) in the Hattiesburg-Forrest County Industrial Park (HFCIP) was officially opened November 12, bringing to a successful conclusion some 10 years of effort and effective legislative lobbying by a determined group of area businessmen, educators and public officials under the leadership of the late Lowery A. Woodall, chairman of the HFCIP Commission.

The two-story, $3.73-million facility houses Pearl River Community College’s (PRCC) Workforce Development Center’s staff offices, three classrooms, two computer labs, a business incubator and $1 million in equipment for such training programs as computer networking, program logic control, industrial maintenance, remote sensing, emergency medical treatment, global positioning and spatial technology.

Though located in the industrial park, the advanced technology center is a part of PRCC, which has campuses in Poplarville and Hattiesburg.
Weeks before the center’s official opening, the staff moved in and the first training session was conducted at the center September 2. And the facility has been used by Kohler Engine, a Hattiesburg company, for a training session for 67 people from the U.S. and abroad.

“It was great,” according to Rosalind Twirl, Kohler’s training coordinator. “They were like, ‘Wow.’ They thought that it was a great facility.”

The new center’s program coordinator is Tracie Fowler, a former PRCC Workforce Development Center training manager.
“The WATC will play an important role in creating a workforce that can help business and industry become more competitive in a global marketplace,” Fowler said.

Dexter Holloway, director of workforce education for the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges, said, “I think that the location is going to really add to the various industries in the park.”

Successful centers that the advisory committee studied were not located on college or university campuses, although they were associated with them, according to Gray Swoope, former president of the Area Development Partnership (ADP).

“That makes a statement in itself. It’s more flexible for the employer to have the access near by. All your training can be done right around the corner,” he said.

Workforce training centers and such facilities as the WATC traditionally provide training for workers who are employed and, at times, offer retraining for those who have lost their jobs.

The HFCIP covers 800 acres and is home to 11 businesses, including Kohler, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Excel Injection Molding Company, Owens-Illinois, Dickten & Masch MS Inc., Western Container Corporation and York International-Hattiesburg.

The industrial park provides easy access to highway, air, rail and ship transportation. It is adjacent to U.S. 49 and U.S. 98 and 2.5 miles from Interstate 59. The Kansas City Southern Railroad is adjacent to the park and the Illinois Central is a mile away. And it is 15 miles to the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport and 70 miles to the deep water port of Gulfport.

The center was held up for a decade because of difficulties with the Legislature. Finally, as a result of the efforts of the Woodall-led coalition, the Legislature approved $4 million for the center on land donated by the Hattiesburg and Forrest County Industrial Park Commission. A local $1 million matching fund was required by the Legislature and the money was provided by the city of Hattiesburg ($500,000), Forrest County ($400,000) and the Asbury Foundation ($100,000).
Actually, the Legislature appropriated $8 million in the funding bill, with half the money going to Jones County Junior College (JCJC) for an advanced technology center located in Howard Technology Park outside Ellisville (some eight miles south of Laurel). The JCJC Foundation provided the matching $1 million.

The two centers promise greater economic development, according to Richard Jones, ADP treasurer.

“It’s going to broaden the horizons of this area. It shows that things will work when all the entities come together and work for a common goal.”

Previously, the two areas had competed for funds for an advanced technology center and, as a result, the bills had died in the Legislature.

“Woodall led the way and forged a partnership between Forrest and Jones counties in July, 1998,” Swoope said.

The new joint bill was filed with the Legislature in January 1999 and, “There was one man throughout the deal that was making it happen, and that was Lowery Woodall,” he said.

“There has been no one who has been more important to this project than Lowery Woodall,” according to Dr. William Lewis, president of PRCC. “He deserves this special recognition.”
Lewis said the center will become, “Our institutional crown jewel. This is a unique opportunity for South Mississippi.”

Pearl River Community College had its genesis with the founding of the Pearl River Agricultural High School in 1908. In 1921, the institution became the Pearl River Agricultural High School and Junior College, then Pearl River Junior College and finally Pearl River Community College.
PRCC’s six-county district includes the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

During a five-year span from 1988 to 1992, while Dr. Ted J. Alexander was president, PRCC provided more new and renovated floor space per student per square foot than any other community college in the southern United States. In July 2000, Alexander was succeeded by Lewis.

Woodall retired in 1996 after 34 years as executive director of Forest County Hospital. He served as chairman of the HFCIP Commission from 1980 until his death this past March.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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