Bedford firing up tech training
After Winoa USA closed its Bedford steel abrasives plant in 2020, town economic officials came up with the idea of renovating the empty facility into a regional technical training center for the metalworking industry that could include a commercial foundry.
In August, the Bedford Economic Development Authority expects to be closer to that goal, with plans to purchase the 60,000-square foot plant, previously assessed at $1.9 million. (The purchase cost was not available as of the mid-July press time for this issue.)
With a $99,000 grant from GO Virginia, the town will spend the next year crystallizing its planning for the Bedford Regional Metal Workforce Retention Center. Bedford’s director of planning and community development, Mary Zirkle, is heading up the initiative.
With nearly 5,800 metal and machinery jobs in Southwest Virginia, including the Roanoke and New River valleys, there’s a need for training, says EDA Chairman Jonathan Buttram, adding that the training center will attract more businesses to the region. “If we have a place that’s producing skilled labor, companies will want to be near it.”
“Having a training center in Bedford would be a huge step forward in providing skilled employees to fill our workforce needs,” says Mike Amos, president of Roanoke-based Precision Steel Manufacturing Corp., which needs workers skilled in fabrication, tube bending, traditional and robotic welding, and computer numerical control (CNC) machining.
The Winoa plant has three high-bay areas, allowing the EDA to consider multiple uses. Potential uses under discussion include:
- Partnering with Central Virginia Community College to provide certificate programs in basic metalworking. CVCC offers metal working classes on campus but has limited space.
- Forging a public-private partnership to provide industry- or company-specific training.
- Creating a flexible metalwork training space that companies could rent.
- Opening a commercial-scale foundry for training or research.
The back bay was built as a foundry, and Bedford has a 10-million-watt transformer that could power an induction or arc furnace. “It would be the only foundry for training in the U.S.,” Buttram says.
Alan P. Druschitz, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, supports establishing a foundry for hands-on training and research. “This would be truly unique,” he says, “since new materials and new processes could be developed along with the workforce to put these materials and processes into high-volume production.”