Big Things Are Happening at CGCC

By Rodger Nichols

The workforce training center on the Columbia Gorge Community College campus in The Dalles will offer hands-on training to meet the region’s workforce development needs. Photo by Rodger Nichols

Family-wage jobs in the Columbia Gorge are waiting for people with the right skills. From welding and carpentry to aviation mechanics, employers struggle to find qualified people, despite competitive wages.

Meanwhile, the cost of housing and lack of child care make it difficult for people to gain the skills they need for those jobs.

Starting this fall, Columbia Gorge Community College will help change that situation by opening a workforce training center and student residential hall. Both new facilities will be ready for the start of classes Monday, September 27.

Meanwhile, the college is completing a feasibility study for a childcare center in The Dalles.

These projects have been years in the making. In 2015, the Oregon State Senate approved $7.3 million to build a workforce skills center on The Dalles campus. It was contingent upon dollar-for-dollar match funding secured by February 2019.

“We knew other public districts were looking at potential bond measures, and we did not want to compete with them,” says Marta Yera Cronin, CGCC’s president.

The college negotiated an intergovernmental agreement with Wasco County and the city of The Dalles to use some of the Google data center Enterprise Zone funds for half the match. The college put up the other half. The Port of The Dalles helped with a low-interest loan.

The original legislative allocation was for a skill center alone, but the college recognized a strong need for affordable student housing.

“We knew some students were commuting long distances, and some were sleeping in their cars,” Marta says.

The college asked the state for permission to build student housing as well. That request went all the way to the Oregon Department of Justice, which agreed.

Between the state and the matching funds, the college is building both facilities for $16.1 million.

The skill center is a 24,000-square-foot, high-bay industrial space supporting two core programs: construction technologies and advanced manufacturing/fabrication.

The college has had a welding class for several years, but it has been in a mechanics annex that wasn’t designed with a robust welding program in mind.

The college’s metals fabrication lab features a plasma table under a ventilation hood. Welding station exhausts are in the background. Photo by Danny Dehaze

The new facility will have the exhaust systems and electrical capacity to run a full-fledged metal fabrication program, including alloy welding, machining, and pipe fabrication.

The other core program is a full gamut of construction trades, from pouring a foundation to nailing on a roof. A makerspace will occupy a third bay, specializing in 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing. Here, lasers and other devices build complex parts, layer by layer, from raw materials.

An aviation maintenance program is also being developed. This program has drawn support from aviation companies throughout the region and awaits Federal Aviation Administration review. Marta says the college has a lot of forward momentum.

“We have found the perfect faculty member living in Mosier,” she says. “We have a plane that’s been donated to us, and we are leasing temporary space in The Dalles Industrial Park. Our goal is to start this program in January.”

Ultimately, the college hopes to site this program at a regional airport. Several discussions are underway to make that happen.

For student housing, CGCC is starting with a 50-bed capacity. That includes 12 quad units that each bunk four students, and two studio apartments.

“If we have strong occupancy, we can do a second facility with a focus on studio apartments for families,” Marta says. Family apartments would underscore the existing need for affordable public child care.

The college received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for a childcare feasibility study. Ten community partners stepped forward immediately to provide the match required for the study.

The college emphasizes a child care center would not just be for college students but the whole community. It would also provide a practicum setting for the college’s early childhood education program, giving students access to real-world training.

Nancey Patten is the director of Child Care Partners Resource & Referral for the college. She has helped students find child care in the community since she joined CGCC in 1995.

“There is a real need for child care,” she says. “A number of existing facilities closed during the pandemic, making the need even more acute.”

There are many questions to answer before diving in. Part of the feasibility study includes a survey of Mid-Columbia residents to find out such basics as what ages most need care, and what hours and days of operation would be most useful.

“Ideally, I would like to see infant, toddler, and preschool,” Nancey says. “Someday, maybe even school-age, because there aren’t a lot of school-age programs in The Dalles.”

Nancey says childcare centers in The Dalles are all either income-eligible or employment-eligible.

“There’s nothing for the general public, and for people who aren’t able to get into Head Start or Oregon Child Development Coalition because their incomes make them ineligible,” she says. “Those are the ones who need child care the most. They’re also the ones that don’t necessarily qualify.”

That scenario leads to even more questions for the college. Can such a program operate on a sustainable business model, or would it need to be subsidized? What staffing is needed? What are the operational costs? The study will help answer these questions.

It would be another big lift for the college. In the meantime, the two newest buildings on campus are a testament to the college’s ability to mobilize community support for the greater good.