GULF SHORES — A project to build a $214-million center to house and train workers could help relieve the growing need for a workforce on the Gulf Coast, supporters said.The South …
GULF SHORES — A project to build a $214-million center to house and train workers could help relieve the growing need for a workforce on the Gulf Coast, supporters said.
The South Baldwin Regional Workforce Development Authority's plan to build a campus in Foley received a boost Monday, May 23, when the Gulf Shores City Council voted to appropriate $100,000 to support planning and development efforts.
Blake Phelps, Gulf Shores economic development coordinator, said the authority is also asking for $100,000 from Foley and Orange Beach.
"If approved, they plan to use these funds to support continued site development, project design and programming, and then specifically to do an economic impact study to determine the project value and return on investment as they have continued discussions with developers and other entities that may get involved from a funding and development standpoint," Phelps said at a May 16 council work session.
Ed Bushaw, vice president of workforce development at the Gateway Initiative, said the facility would be built on a 140-acre site in Foley. He said coastal businesses need to bring in more workers and those employees will need housing and training.
"The idea here is to bring people here that are not here now," Bushaw said. "That's what we need desperately. Our population that's here right now, we're 8,000 to 10,000 people shy of providing the customer service that our people enjoy or that they need to enjoy."
City Councilman Steve Jones said businesses have had difficulty finding workers since he came to the area 30 years ago.
"There's never been enough labor down here, never, and this is the first time in all these years that I've seen such as collective effort and a partnership between Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Foley and this team has put this together," Jones said. "It's the most comprehensive and the best shot we have. We'll never solve the problem completely. This is the best shot I think we have to making this come to fruition."
The authority has agreements with the University of South Alabama and Coastal Alabama Community College to set up education programs on the campus, he said.
"The idea here that makes this campus what we consider to be world class is that there's a lot of campuses that deal with housing around the country, especially out west with our neighbors in the ski resort areas, but there's a training element here that you do not find in any other location that we've researched," Bushaw said.
He said the program will also work on transportation issues, setting up shuttle and pooling programs to help workers get to jobs on the island.
"We know that transportation is also a huge issue," Bushaw said. "We're doing everything that we can to keep cars off the island with a transportation hub here. We're working with Enterprise on a van-pooling system as well as working with BRATS (Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System) on a transportation hub here and a park-and-ride that you would see."
He said the housing would be for individual workers, not families, to allow employees to come to the area until they could find and afford houses or apartments. The site would also include dormitories for students taking part in the USA and Coastal Alabama studies.
"To give you one example, we've got the Western Hospitality University in Jamaica looking to send 100 students here every year to study for a year to be with us and we have no place to house them and there's many, many examples of that and this campus would take care of that," Bushaw said.
The campus would also provide childcare for parents working on the island. The service would provide training for childcare workers as well as a site where local families could have their children looked after while working, he said.
"We all know there's major waiting lists for childcare all around the region," Bushaw said. "We would have not only a childcare center here, but it's also going to be a training facility. Coastal Alabama Community College and the University of South Alabama will be doing an early childhood development program where students can start out to learn in the childcare realm and work all the way up to teachers at that particular site."
Bushaw said authority members are also working on funding to build the campus. The area is in a state opportunity zone, a federal designation that provides tax incentives for investments that promote job growth. The federal American Rescue Plan Act could also provide some funding.
Greg Alexander, president of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, said the supporters have been working for several months to start the project.
"Eight, nine months ago, there was a team of us, a task force came together to discuss our growing work force problems, our issues," Alexander said. "With several of one-time funding opportunities available, ARPA funding, American Rescue Plan, other type funding. We felt like that it was now or never. It's kind of been our mantra."
"There are a number of streams that we're looking at," Bushaw said. "You've got the education trust fund and also the college and the universities have agreed to do charge ups in their regular budget process to build the educational facilities along with Auburn with their particular project. The childcare center, we're looking to use education trust funds for that as well because that's going to be an educational entity."
He said the authority will also be seeking private development investments for the worker housing.
Donna Watts, president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said the program and partnership with colleges will be a major benefit for the area.
"We're very excited about this and I feel very confident that something good is going to happen there and we are going to have the University of South Alabama there and coastal," Watts said, "Coastal's been such a good partner with us from the very beginning of this."