Infighting threatens future of machinist training center

The woman widely praised as the driving force behind a pioneering program to train workers for the tool and precision metal-working industries has been fired from her job, raising the concerns of at least one of the program’s key funders.

For the last 4-1/2 years, Patryc Wiggins has been working on the Eagle Block renovation project in downtown Newport, which has as its anchor tenant the Tool & Technology Resource Center, a training center for the precision machine industry. She was named director of the TTRC in June 2003 but was fired on Dec. 19 by the Economic Corporation of Newport, or ECON, which is overseeing the renovation project.

ECON President Sean Lyon said the decision to fire Wiggins — who also is a well-known tapestry weaver — came through a unanimous vote of the board.

He told the Business Review that the decision was made because “we’re looking for a different way of communicating. It’s a matter of the process of communicating, not the content.”

Lyon couldn’t say what sort of communication process ECON was looking for — at least not at this point. He said the organization was “working on a strategic plan. We’re bringing the funders to the table and moving forward. The construction is continuing as is the plans for the restaurant and the school.”

Likewise, Newport Town Manager Dan O’Neill, an ECON board member, told the local newspaper, the Argus Champion, that the board had decided to take a “different course of action,” although when asked by the Business Review to describe that course, he replied, “There is no secret that there was dissention among many board members as to how much emphasis and resources should be devoted to any one sector.”

Jeff Follansbee, an area restaurateur and prospective owner of the restaurant that will be the other major Eagle Block tenant, said the change made him “skeptical” about the project’s future.

“I’m not concerned so much about my space as I am about the fact that Patryc Wiggins is gone. She was an amazing asset to the community and to ECON. I just want to convey my dismay at ECON’s decision. They made a huge mistake letting her go.”

Follansbee said that whether he remains a tenant depends on the “viability” of the TTRC.

While ECON members say that the Eagle Block project and TTRC will continue, they have given no specifics about any planned changes, including the existence of a TTRC director position.

“It’s too soon to tell,” said board member Kathy Hubert.

According to Hubert and Lyon, the board is currently directing all phases of the project, including the TTRC. Lyon said that the Eagle Block was scheduled to be on the agenda for ECON’s Jan. 19 meeting and by the end of the month, the board would release further information regarding the next steps and personnel changes and responsibilities.

As of Jan. 8, O’Neill said, “We’re still meeting with partners, such as Timken, state funding sources and some other new partners that have not been as much a part of the project over the course of the next month. We are committed to following through and it’s going to be successful.”

Lyon said that at this point the TTRC is moving forward and will relocate into its Eagle Block space in July. “But based on the transition, I don’t know if that is still true. There were no contingencies on the finances to open then,” he said.

Hubert, who oversees the construction aspects of the renovation project, also is the owner of Hubert’s department store chain, including a store adjacent to the Eagle Block.

On the eve of one of the major phases in construction — the first concrete pour for flooring — Hubert was positive about the project’s continuation.

“From what I’ve been told, we’re going forward. The construction is continuing to move forward. The Eagle Block is something I feel very strongly about. We’ve secured a restaurant tenant, and with the TTRC and its ties to the history of the region, it will be a good thing. I’ve always said it’s much better to have a filled building than an empty parking lot.”

Looking for support

The Eagle Block, built in 1825 as a hotel and once the largest building in New Hampshire west of Portsmouth, had been a victim of several fires and had fallen into disrepair over the decades. It had been a long-standing eyesore on Newport’s main corridor. Since 1997, ECON — due in large part to Wiggins’ efforts — has raised at least $2.3 million in donations and grants for its revitalization. Wiggins had been ECON president from July 1999 to June 2003, when she was asked by the board to step down and take the role of TTRC director.

Sullivan County has a large manufacturing economic base — according to Wiggins, 45 percent of the population still works in the manufacturing sector, which was the reason for focusing the project on the machinist heritage in the form of an exhibit and the TTRC.

The Eagle Block renovation and TTRC, Wiggins told the Business Review in an article in the Oct. 17-30, 2003 issue, was “to show just how well historical preservation fits into economic development.”

Just a few months later, Wiggins admitted that her “entire tenure was contentious, but I never thought I’d be fired. There was no funding specifically for my position, and the board made it impossible to fund-raise for myself.”

As recently as Dec. 15, Wiggins filed a report to the ECON board concerning the TTRC and the Eagle Block. On Dec. 19, she received a certified letter signed by Lyon informing her that the board had decided to terminate her employment, citing a decision that it was “time to change direction and leadership.”

Lyon, asked by the Business Review why Wiggins was fired, replied, “This is an employment issue and because of employment law, I cannot discuss such details.”

Adding to Wiggins’ frustration have been battles with the local press, which she described as largely unsupportive of the revitalization effort.

Taken by surprise

While construction work continues at the Eagle Block, TTRC classes began a year ago, with lab space rented at the local high school. Courses are taught by professionals in the industry and cover manual to advanced machining techniques, robotics, pneumatics, hydraulics, CAD/CAM design and laser measurement as well as others.

Traditionally, tool and precision metal-working training was passed on through an apprenticeship and on-the-job training, not through formal educational programs. Consequently, there are no formal programs after which to model the TTRC.

Wiggins and TTRC partners had to develop the curriculum. Adding to those difficulties was skepticism about the future of the industry and formal education for those currently in the profession. However, as the industry has become increasingly sophisticated and computerized, precision machine professionals have had to consider formal education programs or face losing jobs to countries overseas — something that is already occurring at an alarming rate.

It is precisely this kind of education that Timken Aerospace in Lebanon, a precision-tool maker and leading partner in the project, wants to see take place. Helping to secure more than $1 million in grants, the company created 50 jobs — a condition in obtaining a $150,000 Community Development Block grant from the Office of State Planning — to further the work of the TTRC.

Nina Moore, human resources manager at Timken, said the firm was “a little concerned” over the future of the project without Wiggins.

“We’ve established strong relations with the TTRC and have helped develop an excellent program. The TTRC had utilized our people for training and invested significant intellectual capital. We will satisfy our end of the grant. We are committed to the TTRC and want skilled apprentices from it. If we don’t receive skilled workers from the center, we will train them on our own,” Moore said.

Other backers of the project were taken by surprise over the turn of events.

When informed of the change in leadership at the TTRC, Martin Murray, spokesman for Public Service of New Hampshire — which donated $10,000 to the project in 2000 (the largest single project donation) — said his company would be “looking to get more information. We have a history of economic support and are interested in helping other communities succeed economically.”

When informed of the change in leadership at the TTRC, Congressman Charlie Bass — who, along with U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, was instrumental in obtaining a $215,000 federal Housing and Urban Development Direct Set-Aside grant for the Eagle Block project — said in a prepared statement, “The Economic Corporation of Newport’s plans for the Eagle Block building will preserve space for economic development and establish a permanent exhibit on machine and tool-making, which has historically and continues to be an important component of the region’s economy. I will continue to work with the corporation and others who have made this project a priority worthy of congressional support.”

Senator Gregg also said in a prepared statement: “The Eagle Block restoration demonstrates the commitment Newport has placed on preserving its unique historic assets. This project will bring about strong economic development and downtown revitalization. Once restored, Eagle Block will be a focal point for the downtown and a gathering spot for residents and visitors alike. We look forward to continuing our work with the ECON committee and the town of Newport and are excited about the completion of this project.”

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