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STEPS In Convention Centre Mode

PRINCE EDWARD – It is both an ending and a beginning.

Southside Training, Employment and Placement Services (STEPS) has ended manufacturing at its Farmville facility, but plans to put the building west of Farmville to work.

As a convention center.

STEPS Executive Director Sharon Harrup detailed in an interview with The Herald Wednesday that it will be called STEPS Centre.

She detailed that they have already begun marketing, that the sign in front of the building has been changed and Jo Bawiec has been hired as the director of development.

“She has been charged with really coordinating our entire development side of our house,” Ms. Harrup said. “And, also, marketing the STEPS Centre as an option for private and public functions.”

The Centre is planned to have two halls, which can be rented independently or combined. Spaces, with a planned new heating and cooling system, can be pared down. In addition, STEPS plans to enter convention services where employees with disabilities will work with supervisors and job trainers and learn to set up and take down pipe and drape.

“We will be renting the pipe and drape, we'll be renting tables and chairs, the linens-all of that-so it'll be really a one stop shop if you want to have an event at STEPS, all you have to do is tell us…the configuration you need, those types of details and Jo and her staff will make sure it's done according to plan,” Ms. Harrup said. “So, we're excited. We think it's a great new business option for us and…with the County's help to secure the grant to get the new lighting and the new heating and cooling-they were the biggest hurdle.”

The building has a history of manufacturing operations, from its beginnings with Craddock Terry (manufacturing shoes) to STEPS' garment manufacturing operation that shut down (as was hoped at the time) temporarily in January of 2009.

STEPS will use the facility for their own fundraisers and, Ms. Harrup speculated, probably by late September or early October they would be ready to rent the space.

Facility users would be able to hire whoever they want to provide catering services.

“We are not prepared right now to try to delve into the food service business, but the beauty is they can hire whoever they want and there are kitchen facilities over there so they would be able to do-probably not a great deal of cooking on site-but re-heating, serving, that type of need would not be a problem,” Ms. Harrup said.

While it is early, she said the reaction has been very positive.

“We have already confirmed…one business expo,” she said.

The last hurdle that they've got to clear is the roof situation.

“We are doing what we can to keep…any major deterioration of the roof at a minimum and…we're working with roofing companies now looking at alternatives for that roof and then the next stage would be looking for financing to either repair or replace the roof,” she said. “So that's our biggest thing. It will not hinder any events unless we get a monsoon. Now, if we get a monsoon, it could be sort of interesting, but we've done enough repair that we're comfortable telling people that their events would be safe in the building.”

She went on to add there's no safety hazard, but that it's just a matter that if it rains extremely hard and very windy that there may be a few spots that might have some drips.

“And, if that's the case, we'll have some of our custodial staff on premises during every event so we would be able to take care of that immediately,” Ms. Harrup said.

The interior is being painted and they will be upgrading some of the restroom facilities. Much of the building-excluding the portion used by the document shredding portion of STEPS, Commonwealth SolutionsVA, would be available for use.

“…A lot will very much depend on the number of events that can be booked,” Ms. Harrup said, when asked about employment. “We know that we'll be starting out more than likely with a crew of four to six and then, depending on the needs of the customer, that core group of people could grow into as many as 12 to 15.”

STEPS has used the building for fundraising events in the past and for events for other entities.

“When the determination was made that…we just could not seem to make manufacturing work in that plant for a number of reasons, I did not want to jeopardize our ownership of that plant, neither did I want Prince Edward County to be able to…feel like they were being slighted by the reduction in services,” Ms. Harrup said. “So, when we saw what a great facility that could be, especially during the Holiday Extravaganza with the number of people that came through and we actually rented pipe and drape for that event, which is the first time we've ever put pipe and drape in that building, that really did…start me thinking, well why not?”

She did some market research and noted that between Richmond, Lynchburg and Charlottesville there is no place that would be large enough to hold like a business expo or some type of civic club convention.

“My idea is to really market this thing so not only would it be a benefit to STEPS and our employees to have people renting our facility and using our services, but it would also provide an opportunity for Farmville and Prince Edward County to say we have a 60,000 square foot facility that you can subdivide in two halls, you bring your…state-wide association to Farmville,” Ms. Harrup said. “Well, that also helps the restaurants, the hotels, the shops and I…really think it's a win-win for our entire community.”

Once they get a handle on occupancy costs, there will be a pricing structure for for-profit entities and one for non-profit entities.

While there is no longer any STEPS manufacturing facility in Prince Edward, the Lunenburg facility keeps plugging on. It is the fifth largest employer in that county, Ms. Harrup cites. That facility, she notes, has always maintained the military contracts and they normally don't have a terribly difficult time recruiting employees for that site.

“The people with disabilities, yes, we could employ them, but when you're looking at trying to make a cut and sew operation profitable, you have to make sure that your production floor is integrated with people with disabilities and non-disabled employees and we just, we couldn't hang on to that mix. Here in Farmville, there's so many opportunities of places to work.”

She added that they couldn't recruit.

Ms. Harrup, in her presentation to the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors in a work session earlier this week also cited that the heating and cooling costs in the building were exorbitant-they couldn't mark up their manufacturing costs even close to cover the overhead.

Ms. Harrup cites that she doesn't want those with disabilities in this part of their catchment area to suffer because they couldn't make manufacturing work. She highlighted efforts to upgrading their recycling center, have hired a full-time recycling manager. They also have a shop on Main Street.

“…We are always gonna be looking for ways to make sure that people with disabilities have options for employment and this convention services division opens the door in so many ways,” Ms. Harrup said.

A big change coming-with a helping hand from Prince Edward County-will be an upgraded heating and cooling system and improved lighting.

The board of supervisors, meeting in a budget work session Tuesday afternoon, approved STEPS' request to chip in the cost up front for upgrading the heating and cooling system in the building and improve the lighting with the expectation that they will be reimbursed with federal grant funds in a matter of days.

The move offers a potential savings in the form of an advanced discount of $15,300 to the project cost (which totals $734,568). The County is expected to receive the grant funds ($668,000) within about 10 days, but the project cost (minus the discount) is about $51,268 more. STEPS plans to utilize all of the funds received from recycling (which they plan to do in-house) the machinery/wiring removed during the project (over the coming months), which has been estimated at $30,000-$50,000 towards the cost. As loads are sold, the funds would be transferred to the County, lowering their balance due.

Budgeting at $30,000 for the recycling effort, would leave $21,268 according to the plan detailed by Ms. Harrup, which STEPS would cover through a payment made directly to the County no later than January 1. The funds would be either through fundraising and donations or production revenue.