Aransas County commissioners, at their regular meeting Monday, Feb. 8, after hearing overwhelming community support, unanimously approved accepting a $1.7 million U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) Grant for a workforce development and entrepreneurship center, and authorizing County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills to sign the financial assistance award form and any related documents.

The total project cost is $2,138,731. Matching funds are provided by public and private sector-cash, in-kind and force account donations in the amount of $438,731.

The court tabled action regarding grant acceptance at its Jan. 25 meeting with a 2-2 vote. Commissioner Jack Chaney was not present at that meeting.

Commissioners Pat Rousseau and Wendy Laubach, who cast the dissenting votes Jan. 25 due to concerns that had not been adequately addressed, supported accepting the grant at Monday’s meeting, after their concerns were addressed.

Rousseau said she didn’t want current programs available at Rockport-Fulton High School to be “cannibalized” by the new workforce development and entrepreneurship center.

“I’ve been assured they will only be enhanced,” said Rousseau.

Her other questions were answered since the last meeting, as well.

“Now, I have no reservations approving this,” she said.

Laubach noted she voted to table action at the last meeting because she didn’t have access to the documents she wanted to see.

One of her concerns is about what happens if the partnership (county owns the building, Del Mar pays for all operations and programming) fails at some point. The EDA grant comes with strings attached, which could leave the county on the hook for part of the grant in the future.

“If we do fail, then we have this valuable piece of real estate (the north part of the former Little Bay Primary) to make us whole,” said Laubach.

In other action related to the workforce development and entrepreneurship center, commissioners unanimously approved the First Amendment to the Option to Purchase Real Estate Contract dated August 24, 2020. It extends the option period by three months, and authorizes the expenditure of additional option fees not to exceed $18,000, for the property located at 2000 Highway 35 Business N. (the north part of the former Little Bay Primary).

Rousseau asked if the $6,000 per month in option fees will affect the final purchase price.

County EDC Representative J. Mark Wagnon assured her it will not change the price.

Public comment regarding the EDA grant

Prior to the court’s unanimous decision to accept the EDA grant, members of the public shared their thoughts about it, and the workforce development and entrepreneurship center

Judge Mills, prior to opening the meeting up to public comment, noted he had more than a dozen letters of support for the workforce center and acceptance of the grant.

Eight individuals spoke passionately in favor of accepting the grant.

Kristie Rutledge spoke passionately against the grant, and Kathy Kane shared her concerns, as well.

Nancy Bolting reviewed how many times the public has had the opportunity to be involved in the process, which determined the need for workforce development, since Hurricane Harvey. After noting it was a top priority in the long term recovery plan, she said, “Here we are in 2021 still trying to decide if we’re going to do a workforce training center.”

Aransas County Independent School District (ACISD) Education Foundation Executive Director Suzanne Ransleben talked about the district’s stellar welding certification and culinary arts programs, which are backed financially by the Foundation.

“You can imagine (what the cost would have been) to the school district,” she said.

After noting about 70% of ACISD students come from low income homes, Ransleben said, “There’s simply not enough words to tell you how much this is needed in our community.

“I can’t think of a better investment.”

Del Mar College Executive Vice President and COO Lenora Keas talked about the college’s role in the development and operation of the workforce development and entrepreneurship center. She also noted she graduated from Rockport-Fulton High School.

“We will offer a variety of courses to meet the needs of the community,” she said, noting the courses and training received will produce a better-trained workforce.

Dual credit courses offered at Rockport-Fulton High School will remain at the high school.

“Other (specialized) dual credit courses could go to the workforce center,” said Keas.

One of the biggest concerns of some Aransas County taxpayers is the possibility of Aransas County being forced into Del Mar’s taxing district.

Keas assured the court the only way the county will become part of Del Mar’s taxing district is if Aransas County voters choose to do so.

“This (workforce development center) will not force (on you) a new taxing district,” she said.

She noted Del Mar’s taxing district is Corpus Christi, which is different than the college’s much wider service area.

“Del Mar is financially strong,” said Keas.

She said the budget for the new workforce development center is based on conservative estimates.

“We have provided a balanced budget,” she said.

In regard to funding from the state, which will occur after two years of operations, Keas noted most of the courses offered will earn from the state more than what is projected in the budget.

She said a fulltime director will be assigned to the local center.

“This is a great opportunity for Aransas County families,” said Keas.

ACISD Superintendent Dr. Joshua Garcia spoke in support of the effort, calling it an “expansion of opportunities”.

A woman who works alongside Keas, said she worked as a probation officer in Aransas County in the past.

“I know there are needs,” she said.

Emily Martinez with the Coastal Bend Council of Governments said the new workforce center will help diversify employment options.

A man who moved to Rockport from Rockwall County, talked about the similarities between the two counties.

“I want to compliment (local) leaders for keeping up with infrastructure growth for the expected growth in the future,” he said. “Education and business growth is just as important of an issue as all the other infrastructure.

“Those (in Rockwall County) who griped about (rising) taxes used to provide infrastructure, are now griping about the lack of infrastructure.”

John Jackson urged commissioners to accept the grant and move forward with a unanimous vote, noting their action would “set in motion what so many people now, and in the future, will benefit from … a chance to be trained and educated right here in Rockport”.

He noted the community is “strongly in favor” of the workforce development and entrepreneurship center.

“What kind of signal would we be sending if we turn down a $1.7 million grant that so many have supported?” he asked.

He talked about the 25 donors who stepped up and committed $438,000 in cash and in-kind services in just two weeks for the 100% match, and the current owner of Little Bay Primary who paid for the required environmental study.

“The list goes on,” he said, referring to many individuals, organizations, and government entities solidly behind the project.

“The county’s primary role is limited to that of a landlord. The Del Mar MOU approved by this court months ago clearly spells that out. Let’s unite this county on this Workforce Development Center Grant again, once and for all, by a unanimous vote today.”

Rutledge said she read the entire grant package and the EDA requires oversight (as a requirement for the grant) and the county will have to pay back the $1.7 million if it doesn’t work out.

“Aransas County’s population isn’t large enough to sustain this,” she said.

Rutledge also said the workforce center will focus on arts and dual credit, which has its offices at RFHS.

She said Del Mar will have a $500,000 shortfall in year three of operations, and increase after that.

She also said the county will end up selling the property to pay back the $1.7 million grant, or give it to Del Mar and join the college’s taxing district.

She also noted the whole thing will be managed by the EDC and the Chamber.

“I’m not sure the benefit outweighs the potential of (being dragged into a college taxing district),” said Rutledge.

Kane said the county shouldn’t spend $30,000 to continue the option on the building.

“It has been empty for years with little interest. Don’t throw away any more of the taxpayers’ money. If it is meant to be, the building will be available if and when it is needed,” she said.

Kane said she is  100% supportive of offering non-college bound students and residents options to learn a trade, and applauded the county for going out and asking for all the money it could get after Hurricane Harvey.

“But I question the wisdom of this one,” she said. “How will we sustain this venture? ... What happens to the building? Will it just be empty in three to four years? What happens to the grant money if this venture with Del Mar fails? How will it be paid back?

“It is wonderful we received this grant, but you have to ask if this is the gift that keeps on taking.”

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