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Entrepreneur plans to build north Minneapolis training center.

Byline: William Morris

Minnesota companies are eager to find skilled workers in a variety of fields, but not all Minnesotans have equal access to the training needed for those positions. A proposal to build an apprenticeship training center in north Minneapolis seeks to narrow that gap.

The plan is the brainchild of Jamez Staples, a lifelong Minneapolis resident and entrepreneur who founded solar energy contractor Renewable Energy Partners in 2014. While solar installers and other trained electrical workers are in high demand, many of the programs to train and certify such workers are in places like White Bear Lake and St. Michael, which can be a multi-hour commute from north Minneapolis by public transit, he said.

"I got into the renewable energy business specifically to create jobs for folks in some of the economically challenged populations," Staples said in an interview. "If I have people that want to get trained, where do I send them to get trained?"

Soon, he hopes to provide the answer. Staples founded Northgate Development in 2017 and has purchased a shuttered Minnesota State Workforce Center at 1200 Plymouth Ave. N. in Minneapolis.

It would be the home of the Minneapolis Regional Apprenticeship Training Center, or RATC, which he envisions as a hub for career and technical education not just for solar and other renewable energy jobs, but also for advanced manufacturing, virtual reality, drone technology and other emerging industries.

The program is modeled on Rochester's Career and Technical Education Center at Heintz, a joint venture of the city, the school district and Rochester Community and Technical College. That program, now in its third year, offers students high school and in some cases college credit for classes in a dedicated building on the community college campus. CTECH, as it is called, is equipped with welding stations, an industrial kitchen, a 14-bed nursing lab and other professional-level facilities.

"One of our goals here is to ensure students are learning in a space and facility that is consistent with the industry," CTECH Principal Brandon Macrafic said in an interview.

That's what Staples hopes to accomplish in Minneapolis. In addition to renovating the existing building of roughly 22,000 square feet, he hopes to convert the current parking lot into an additional 80,000 to 100,000 square feet of learning space. He estimates the project will cost $30 million to $35 million, and although he does not have a date yet to begin the project, "obviously, the sooner the better," he said.

There are major questions to be answered first, including how Staples' new workforce center will partner with Minneapolis Public Schools and other educators. Staples does not intend to operate the center as a charter school and instead wants local school districts to send students to the RATC for hands-on workforce training, which he believes will help them meet their obligations under the state's World's Best Workforce legislation.

District spokesperson Julie Schultz Brown confirmed Minneapolis Public Schools is holding discussions with Staples about his proposal.

"Future [Career and Technical Education] programming will be addressed through the larger strategic Comprehensive District Design, which we hope to engage with thepublicabout in more detail this spring," she said in an email statement.

Staples also has reached out to post-secondary institutions to discuss possible partnerships. Gail O'Kane, vice president of academic affairs at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said in an interview the school is interested in the proposal but wants to wait until Minneapolis Public Schools or someone else provides high school credit before it enters a more formal partnership.

"Whatever they do to develop a high school, we would be willing to have someone serve on their advisory board," O'Kane said. "When they develop the curriculum, we could facilitate conversations with our faculty so that the high school offerings, to the extent they are delivering the same content and curriculum that we are offering in a similar course, we could offer dual credit."

Although key partnerships remain up in the air, Staples is already getting substantial public support. In November, the St. Paul Port Authority approved a $173,000 loan to cover much of the cost for a 155-kilowatt solar array on the building's roof, which will double as a workshop for students studying solar technology. In December, the Metropolitan Council announced a $1.6 million Livable Communities Demonstration Account grant to support the project.

Whenever it's ready to open, Staples hopes the RATC will open new doors of opportunity for north Minneapolis residents and students. And he hopes to see some of the future students on the job with Renewable Energy Partners further down the line.

He said the goal is to "take some of the people out of the training program and hire them in the solar installation company."

Minneapolis-based Mobilize Design & Architecture is designing the project, and Staples said he's working with several contractors.



New signs of interest in north Minneapolis

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Publication:Finance and Commerce
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jan 4, 2019
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