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November 15, 2023

CT spent $8.4M fixing up a college building — but hasn’t paid to staff it

ERICA E. PHILLIPS / CT MIRROR Construction has wrapped on Phases I and II of renovations at 21 Spring Lane, the new Advanced Manufacturing Center at Tunxis Community College. The state has spent a total of $8.4 million so far.

A plan to expand advanced manufacturing instruction at Tunxis Community College in Farmington could be delayed as the state’s higher education system faces severe budget cutbacks.

Connecticut has spent $8.4 million in capital funds to purchase and renovate a 44,000-square-foot former manufacturing facility adjacent to the Tunxis Community College campus, and the school had intended to add two annual cohorts of 16 students in machine technology as soon as the construction work was done.

But with the initial phase of renovations now complete, and the building nearly ready to host students, Connecticut State Community College leaders say the cost to hire faculty and staff to run the programs — as well as cover operations at the facility — would top $550,000 each year. 

That’s currently not in Tunxis’ $29 million annual budget. 

And CT State isn’t in a position to offer the campus a boost. The community colleges and regional state university system are projecting a $140 million deficit next fiscal year — 11% of the entire budget. 

“It’s a zero-sum game budget. What we add to the budget, we have to take away from another part of the budget,” said John Maduko, president of CT State, in a meeting last week with administrators, legislators and business leaders. 

“To take that away from the main campus of Tunxis, that has faculty and students and services on an already tight budget, would definitely douse gasoline on an already very tense situation,” Maduko said.

“My concern is we’ve invested $8 million and this building’s going to sit there and not be utilized,” said Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol. “That’s a poor investment on the state of Connecticut. How did this get so far down the road?”

The higher education system’s financial woes were “years in the making,” Kerry Kelley, CT State’s chief financial officer, told attendees of last week’s meeting. Expenses have risen faster than revenues, due to increasing labor costs and inflation, and declining enrollment has exacerbated that shortfall, Kelley said. Community college enrollment dropped about 14% in the five years leading up to the pandemic and continued to decline over the last two years.

“It’s unfortunate that high priorities like this are getting caught up at a time where other things are taking all the oxygen,” Kelley said.

Advanced manufacturing is a critical component of the community college system in a state that’s home to several large defense contractors and thousands of smaller manufacturing businesses that make precision parts for those companies. Entry-level jobs in the sector pay relatively well and don’t require a four-year degree. Still, business and community college leaders say recruiting people to the field has been a challenge. 

That’s not for a lack of effort on Connecticut’s part, said Rich DuPont, president of manufacturing consultancy Resource Development Associates and an interim associate dean with CT State.

DuPont pointed to the state’s $70 million effort to help people find skilled job training opportunities through the online CareerConneCT website. He also highlighted the Department of Economic and Community Development’s recently established office of the chief manufacturing officer, which has been leading a “hearts and minds campaign” aimed in part at boosting enrollment in advanced manufacturing programs. 

There is a particularly urgent need for that pipeline of new talent as General Dynamics Electric Boat and its suppliers look to recruit thousands of workers in anticipation of billions of dollars in submarine-building contracts in the coming years. 

“We, as a state, said manufacturing is critical — to our infrastructure, our economy, our well-being. And we made a lot of decisions, again, as a state, to go ahead and support these efforts,” DuPont said. “Now it’s as though CT State is being hung out, kind of alone, to solve a problem that statewide we’ve all been a part of creating.”

DuPont, Maduko and Kelley were speaking at last week’s meeting of the Advanced Manufacturing Center Advisory Group, a panel convened via legislation earlier this year, tasked with facilitating the expansion of programs at the new Tunxis facility and “maximiz[ing] the economic, educational and workforce benefits provided to the state by the center.” So far, less than half of the building’s 44,000 square feet has been renovated. 

The panel has ambitions for the additional space — including proposals to add more technologically advanced equipment and instruction in what’s known as mechatronics, a hybrid of electrical and mechanical engineering. They also envision a large warehouse area that would be open to the community, where high school extracurricular robotics teams could work on designs and host competitions.

That kind of community connection could generate interest among younger students in the region, driving them to enroll in certificate and degree programs. That’s the kind of high-tech workforce pipeline the industry needs in Connecticut, said Mark Burzynski, a recruiting and talent development advisor with Bristol-based manufacturer The Arthur G. Russell Co., who serves on the panel. 

“What’s driving me doing this is to try to sustain a pipeline … so Arthur G. Russell company doesn’t have to move out of state to go find the talent it needs to sustain itself,” Burzynski said. “We are a very high tech business, and we see this cliff coming.”

A grant Connecticut received from the National Science Foundation in 2021, to design skills training and professional development in “Industry 4.0” fields like mechatronics, is another reason to finish the Tunxis center as soon as possible, members of the working group said.

But it could take as much as $4 million more in capital funds to do that. The group doesn’t yet have a solid estimate for the additional projects its members envision for the advanced manufacturing center at Tunxis. It’s expected, before the end of the year, that the group submit a plan to the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee laying out the scope, cost and potential sources of funding — including private sector sources — to complete renovations and sustain annual operations.

(By comparison, according to CT State, Quinebaug Valley Community College spent $8.4 million to build its 11,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing center, which costs about $1 million annually to operate. Asnuntuck Community College spent $24 million on its 26,000-square-foot facility — which offers high-tech mechatronics programs in addition to other advanced manufacturing instruction — and it costs about $3.7 million a year to run.)

State Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, who leads the Commerce Committee, told the panel she’ll be looking for a plan “that we can’t ignore.” But she said any funding request has to be compelling.

“Give us a package that answers all of those things,” Hartley said, “who you are, what you bring, and what — quite frankly — we will lose” if the building goes unfinished or sits idle.

“What we’re going to do is join forces again, get back to the table and see how we separate what we do for manufacturing versus some of the other problems that we have,” DuPont said. 

“We just rebranded our state look, ‘Make it here,’” he added, referring to Connecticut’s new marketing campaign. “We have to stand behind all these things.”

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