Mineral County residents have a right to feel betrayed over the pending closure of the Robert C.Byrd Institute of Flexible Manufacturing at Rocket Center, a move that not only forces current students to drive to Bridgeport for training, but also undermines long-term economic development the county.
Under plans made public just this week – but evidently in the works for quite some time – all of the flexible manufacturing facility operations will be shifted to a similar RCBI operation in Bridgeport. Students now enrolled in the program through Potomac State College will have to drive twice a week to Bridgeport to complete their studies, a distance of more than 100 miles.
The closure also robs area businesses of access to cutting-edge manufacturing processes that had been playing an ever larger role in the local economy, and promised to be a significant part of the county's economic base in years to come.
With community colleges in Western Maryland reportedly planning to start their own such facilities, West Virginia stands to see vital economic activity move across the Potomac River, taking with it jobs, income and tax revenue.
As exemplified by its very name honoring a political titan of the U.S. Senate and the Mountain State, the Rocket Center facility is the fruit of a long-term partnership between local, state and federal governments, and RCBI. This is not how partners treat one another.
Two Mineral County residents serve on the RCBI Advisory Committee, yet neither was made aware of the closure, set to take effect Aug. 1. Thus, Mineral County was never afforded the opportunity to make its case for keeping the center, or to negotiate in offering incentives that would offset any perceived shortcomings at Rocket Center.
In hindsight, the warning signs were there. When RCBI moved a critical CNC machine from Rocket Center several years ago, local officials were made to believe that it would be replaced with new equipment. Instead, the new equipment never came and customers who had come to rely on the CNC machine were told they had to go to Bridgeport.
When, after much effort on the part of local officials, an outreach person was hired to facilitate contact with area businesses and develop customers for RCBI equipment, the employee was never given equipment that had been promised for the position, and eventually quit in frustration.
Potomac State College also felt the sting of RCBI's callous business practices.
The college was told by RCBI officials that it must charge tuition that would make its machinist program twice as expensive as other courses offered at the college. When PSC came back with a counter-offer to allow for more reasonable tuition, RCBI never responded, other than to pull the plug on the program entirely.
RCBI had promised to work in partnership with Mineral County to forge a mutually beneficial relationship that would boost economic development in the region, and the business of RCBI itself. Mineral County held up its end of the bargain, RCBI did not.
While it appears to be too late to reverse this decision, if there is anything that the local Mineral County Delegation can do in Charleston, as well as our representatives in the federal government in Washington, D.C, now is the time for somebody to stand up for what is right for all West Virginians and not just for whom RCBI wishes to serve.