Plans are moving forward to turn a former steel plant in the town of Bedford into a new center designed to boost the regional metal-related workforce.
The town’s Economic Development Authority hopes to close on the purchase of the former Winoa USA facility, at 1 Abrasive Avenue in Bedford, within a month or so, according to Jonathan Buttram, chairman of the town EDA.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality still needs to sign off on some environmental work at the property, where Winoa USA manufactured steel abrasives before the facility shut down in mid-2020, affecting almost 40 employees.
The project, dubbed the Bedford Regional Metal Workforce Retention Center, is still in its early stages, and many details have yet to be worked out.
A recently awarded $99,900 grant from the public-private partnership GO Virginia will go toward hiring a consultant to develop a master plan, and Buttram said he hopes that will yield some direction by this time next year.
The project has already seen support from the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, the Roanoke Regional Partnership, and large Lynchburg-based nuclear-industry firms Framatome and BWX Technologies.
They’re among more than a dozen organizations represented in letters that were sent in support of the Bedford EDA’s grant application to GO Virginia.
In the meantime, Buttram, who also is president of the Bedford engineering firm Interwav Inc., says he foresees three potential uses for the 60,000-square-foot facility:
- partnering with Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg to expand its certificate programs and technical education;
- working with local businesses to train current and prospective employees on industry-specific skills; and
- once again having a foundry in the facility’s large back bay.
The building is a modern steel structure, with three high bays and a central area with a mezzanine, Buttram said.
“It’s really set up perfectly to be a really first-class facility,” he said.
Buttram declined to disclose the anticipated purchase price since the deal is pending. Local government records available online show the building and its accompanying 15.4-acre property were assessed this year at just under $1.9 million.
Closing a skills gap
Jobs numbers compiled by CVCC show nearly 5,800 people employed in the metal and machinery industries in GO Virginia’s Region 2, which covers 18 cities and counties in the Lynchburg and Roanoke areas.
These occupations include welding; machining; sheet metal fabrication; molding, casting and coremaking; and more. Regional industries employing these workers cover a variety of fields, including architectural and structural metals manufacturing, motor vehicle parts manufacturing and machine shops, according to CVCC’s report.
The thousands already employed in the region are apparently not enough to meet the need. In particular, welders, cutters, solderers and machinists remain in high demand.
CVCC offers a variety of courses in skilled trades, and the college’s welding classes quickly fill up.
Last year, the school had 219 welding students, said John Capps, president of the community college.
As demand exceeds supply, students are turned away.
Collaboration between the regional workforce retention center and the college could be mutually beneficial in expanding the college’s capabilities to educate new workers in those fields.
“They’re providing the space and the facilities, and we would be providing the instruction,” Capps said.
A partnership with local industry
Finding potential employees with general welding knowledge is relatively easy, said David Hanowitz, owner of Bedford-based Central Virginia Manufacturing.
But finding those with more specialized skills, and experience with the particular machines used at his company, is more difficult, Hanowitz said.
Central Virginia Manufacturing, which has around 15 to 18 employees at any one time, is primarily a sheet metal shop that also performs light structural work such as making metal stands, racks and tables, he said.
Welders often come to the job with previous experience working on larger, heavier products like the steel beams used in buildings, and they’re used to working with thicker metals and hotter welding temperatures.
“It takes a little bit more of, I’d say a skilled touch, putting our stuff together without destroying it in the process, as well as being able to finish it to where it looks really nice when we’re done,” Hanowitz said.
His hope is that the regional center will help train people to the specific skill sets he’s looking for, or he could send his employees there for additional training.
“And I’m very similar with at least half a dozen other guys that are in Lynchburg who run the same equipment that I run and do a lot of the same product,” Hanowitz said.
He’s found success in hiring employees who have few skills but are willing to learn, and training them from the ground up.
But that’s an investment of time and money, and if the employee leaves, he’s back to the drawing board.
A center like the one proposed would be able to train someone before they show up at Hanowitz’s door, and that employee would benefit by being able to command a better starting pay rate, he said.
Restarting a foundry
The largest bay in the back of the former Winoa USA facility was the furnace room.
Among the more than a dozen letters of support included in the town’s grant application to GO Virginia is one from American Foundry Society CEO Doug Kurkul.
“Highly engineered castings produced by foundries are integral to most manufactured products, from motor vehicles and aerospace to water quality, energy development, and national defense,” the letter reads.
A Town of Bedford Electric Department transformer located at a substation near the site provides enough energy to power an electric arc or induction furnace at the facility, Buttram said.
“So we have this close-to-a-million-dollar asset sitting up there not being used anymore because Winoa needed it. But they didn’t own it,” Buttram said.
Getting a foundry in the new center’s building would be an expensive task, but it could create an educational opportunity unlike anywhere else.
Buttram said he’s been in regular discussions with Virginia Tech, whose engineering college has a research foundry on campus.
“What we’re trying to do is, explore all possibilities of trying to put some type of foundry back into that back area. And that would really make a complete workforce development for metal fab. Everybody thinks welding and bending and forging, but you have a foundry on site? That really makes you unique,” Buttram said.