TTC aeronautics training hub nears halfway funding mark

Trident Technical College President Mary Thornley.

Mary Thornley is flying a little higher lately.

The president of Trident Technical College praised lawmakers from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties with personal letters last week after they approved $10 million in funding for development of the proposed $79 million aeronautical training center.

"Your support has preserved Charleston County's commitment ($18,750,000) contingent upon state funding of the balance as well as the commitment ($1,000,000) from the city of North Charleston," she wrote.

Trident Tech has committed $4.13 million in land and another $4 million in cash, said spokesman David Hansen. That means it is approaching half the money it needs for the new center. It still needs about $41 million to become a reality.

"We are exhausting every funding avenue - applying for grants, pursuing philanthropic gifts and maximizing local funding," she says in the letter provided by Rep. Chip Limehouse in which she thanks him for meeting with her in Columbia early in the state budget-writing process.

"We will be seeking additional funding from the state during the next legislative session," Hansen said.

Limehouse, a member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers expect Trident Tech to come back for more money.

"It depends on the budget situation at the time, but that's the plan - to stay with it," the Charleston Republican said. "This is huge for our community. We are transitioning into an aeronautics community."

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who pushed to secure the $10 million, said more funding from the state will likely be contingent on the school raising private funds for the project.

"It was very challenging to be able to steer the $10 million in funding (into the budget)," Grooms said. "It would be very difficult if not impossible to come up with the rest of the funding unless the private sector steps up."

The real challenge, Grooms said, is convincing businesses and community leaders in other parts of the state of the value of the training center. Offering advanced aeronautical training in Charleston, Grooms said, could help grow the industry in the region and the state, including Boeing South Carolina and its suppliers and vendors.

"There is a very real possibility that we would receive another production line from Boeing at sometime in the future," Grooms said. "Boeing will continue to grow as quickly as we are able to provide the training and workforce they require."

The training center, announced last fall, is expected to be a huge boost for the area's burgeoning aerospace industry.

Boeing Co. assembles the 787 Dreamliner at Charleston International Airport and is building a factory to produce engine inlet components for the new 737 MAX aircraft in Palmetto Commerce Park.

Boeing no doubt will expand in the future, with 468 additional acres waiting just across from its main campus on International Boulevard to be developed. The Army Corps of Engineers recently signed off on the wetlands mitigation plan.

With the new factory and expansion yet to come, Trident Tech's proposed 215,000-square-foot training hub will provide education to scores of workers who could one day work at Boeing or its area suppliers.

The college's facility would provide training in aircraft assembly, aircraft maintenance and avionics. It also would expand the two-year college's aeronautical curriculum.

Trident Tech offers four airplane-related degrees or certificate tracks - aircraft maintenance technology, aircraft assembly technology, avionics maintenance technology and basic industrial work skills.

The college's new facility is planned to be housed on part of 25 acres adjacent to its main campus on Rivers Avenue.

While funding is being cobbled together, Trident Tech plans to move forward with receiving regulatory approval from local and state agencies and hopes to award a design contract by year's end. Construction won't begin until all the money is secured.

Amanda Kerr of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or