By John Lievonen
Simulated gunfire and explosions echoed inside Brandon Romine’s non-descript dorm room as gusts of wind and stinging rain pounded against his concrete walls.
The sound effects from Sylvester Stallone’s blockbuster film “The Expendables” were supposed to drown out the remnants of Hurricane Irma barreling over Gainesville and Romine’s dwelling on the 47-acre campus of the Gainesville Job Corps Center.
It wasn’t until the film’s credits rolled and the sun rose the morning of September 11, 2017, that Romine and nearly 250 other students and staff realized the extent of the issues at the facility within the city’s Airport Industrial Park.
A nearby man-made creek overflowed, sending water streaming through surrounding wetlands and contaminated soil up and into portions of the sprawling, sun-orange, federally-funded complex primarily for disadvantaged teenagers and young adults.
By October, Romine was on a plane to Virginia, 125 center workers were laid off and the campus was soon shuttered.
Now, the site sits all but abandoned with over $10 million in repair costs that the Labor Department says it won’t cover. Gainesville city officials, meanwhile, have expressed concerns over the permanent closure and are trying to sway the federal government into bringing the program back — albeit with some major changes.
A partnership between the city of Gainesville, Alachua County, the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and other regional and national interests are lobbying for a “21st-Century Job Corps site” in a new location that would re-establish a job training program and return the hundreds of lost jobs. The plan will be presented in a package from local stakeholders to the Labor Department and elected officials, according to city emails and drafts of the proposed documents.
But as the community awaits an official decision – which could come at any time – the center’s past could affect its future.
Before the storm, more than a half-century of shifting purposes and environmental hazards sometimes restrained students eager to learn and staff willing to help, a WUFT News investigation found.
Just weeks before the storm hit, the center’s management changed hands again. Although operated as a division of the Labor Department, most of the nearly 125 centers across the country and Puerto Rico are run by a handful of companies contracted by the federal government.
The latest transfer was made to a Scottsdale, Arizona-based workforce development company, Odle Management Group, in a deal potentially worth $50.5 million, according to federal contract records.
The shift was seen as a turning point for the center, according to Karen Curran, a former administrative assistant at the center for Odle Management.
The center at 5301 N.E. 40th Terrace struggled for years in trying to help underserved residents in the community and across the country learn vocational skills within dozens of specialties. But the new management, while still trying to acclimate, was more responsive to student needs, according to Curran.
However, it was short-lived. By early September, Hurricane Irma was gaining strength in the Caribbean and pushing toward the Florida Keys. The track kept shifting as students and staff watched news coverage and began preparing by stocking up on food and water and placing sandbags in select locations.
A new forecast soon placed what was then a Category 1 hurricane moving up the spine of the state and over the city of Gainesville. Still, the storm did not elicit panic or grave concern, according to Romine, Curran and other staff used to the disruption of hurricane season.
The rain began Sept. 10, dumping over a foot of water at the nearby Gainesville Regional Airport, swelling the Santa Fe River and choking off traffic through Paynes Prairie on U.S. Highway 441.
A pine tree fell near the center in the early hours of Sept. 11, damaging a utility pole and alerting some to the rising water. Most students, though, learned about the flooding after their 6 a.m. wake up call.
A few hours later, Gainesville Police Department pickup trucks along with a series of buses shepherded students away from the center and toward locations in the city, according to Romine and photos posted to social media by the police department.
As the students got situated in their temporary locations, crews began assessing the damage at the center. A cleaning company, Dreyers DKI, posted photos and videos of the flood damage on its Facebook page for parents and guardians eagerly awaiting answers about the future.
A walkthrough by Department of Labor officials, center staff and environmental consultants on Sept. 19 found “extensive” damage due to floodwaters potentially contaminated with chemicals from the surrounding industrial park, the preliminary investigation showed.
Although clean-up efforts had improved some conditions, the report still advised: “Due to life safety hazards, it is recommended that no student and limited staff…remain on center until a full assessment is completed.”
About 40 students who did not have family in the area or were deemed homeless by federal officials had returned to the center in the days after the storm, staying in areas thought to be unaffected. Due to flooding of classrooms, though, there was little to do, according to Curran, who worked closely with the center director.
Shortly after noon on Sept. 22, the regional director of the Job Corps program in Atlanta authorized the transfer of students away from the site following discussions surrounding the complicated logistics of finding new locations for every student.
Romine and 190 other students sent home after the storm were soon given transfer orders to other centers, starting with Jacksonville and Pinellas County sites and expanding up the East Coast.
The Labor Department did not respond to a series of detailed questions about the Gainesville Job Corps Center’s status emailed to a regional spokesperson in late April. When reached by telephone on Friday, a national Labor Department spokesperson requested all questions to again be submitted by email. They were provided and not answered at the time of this story’s publication.
The center had tried to blend a traditional school experience, complete with student government and graduation ceremonies with dorm-style vocational training as part of a national campaign that dates back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiative.
The Gainesville location started in 1978 when a series of land swaps placed the center in the middle of the sparsely-used industrial park north of the airport that contained a chemical manufacturing plant, according to aerial photos and deed records.
The complex now contains a dozen buildings and another 10 structures clustered together on the western side of the property. The remaining land is covered in thick forest with the exception of a “semi-abandoned” baseball field in the northeast corner that sits across the street from the bustling SiVance, LLC chemical plant, according to a 2013 Labor Department report.
However, the modern site dates back to the mid-1950s with the opening of the Sperry Rand Corporation’s electronic tube facility. Everything from missile guidance systems to T.V. components were manufactured in near-sterile conditions, according to Florida historian Allen Morris in his 1963 work, “The Florida Industrial Case Book.”
To ensure purity, Sperry Rand used the cleaning solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, in a cleaning process called vapor degreasing. The compound, widely used during the period, has now come under growing scrutiny from the EPA for its cancer-causing risks and is slated to be banned from commercial vapor degreasing.
A 1986 merger between Sperry Rand and another manufacturing company, Burroughs Corporation, created the Unisys Corporation, an information technology giant that generated revenue of $2.8 billion in 2018.
A 1993 fuel spill led to the discovery of a 1,200-foot long underground plume of contamination that spread south onto neighboring properties, according to the DEP’s 2007 complaint filed against the U.S. government.
The contaminants included TCE, which was found at concentrations as high as 24,000 micrograms per liter, more than 8,000 times higher than the state’s Groundwater Cleanup Target Level of 3 micrograms per liter.
Initial concerns centered on the nearby Murphree Wellfield, the city’s main water supply center, being compromised but those fears never panned out, according to Treadwell Kissam, a former DEP geologist who handled the case.
However, the discovery hurt the city’s ability to market its final few parcels of land in the industrial center, according to a 2006 letter written by then-City Attorney Marion Radson.
The Labor Department and Unisys refused to acknowledge the contamination stemmed from the Job Corps site although a 157-page report by federal contractor Dynamic Technology Systems, Inc. in 2001 identified two possible sources of contamination, both of which were located within the Job Corps property.
In a written statement to WUFT News, Unisys said it’s working with the DEP and has “implemented remedial measures at the site to mitigate effected groundwater.”
In July 2007, the DEP filed a lawsuit against the federal government that asked for $90,000, which would repay the department for its remediation efforts at the site.
A timeline of pre-Irma events at the GJCC• Sept. 1985: The neighboring SCM Specialty Chemicals plant explodes due to a lightning strike, sending burning chemicals and fiberglass into the air. Over 250 students were evacuated but no one from the Job Corps site was injured, according to the Independent Florida Alligator.
• June 1994: A 10,000-gallon chemical spill at the plant ignites and forces the evacuation of the Job Corps site, as well as the closure of the nearby airport. The facility at the time is known as PCR Inc.
• Aug. 8, 1998: A 300-gallon chemical spill sends a plume of hydrochloric acid as far as west as Interstate 75. About 140 people in Gainesville are sent to the hospital, according to the Gainesville Sun.
• Aug. 28, 1998: The release of ammonia from PCR sickens workers at another nearby business, according to the Gainesville Sun.
• 2006: Nearly $60,000 is provided to fix aging pipes that forced sewage backups and flooding. The problem is not resolved as of a federal report in 2013.
• Nov. 22, 2008: As a precaution, students are removed from the center after the discovery of contaminated soils above Florida’s exposure guidelines, according to a letter written by the regional director of the Job Corps program.
• Oct. 2016: New soil contamination is discovered as crews work to fix a cracked water pipe, according to emails between a Job Corps director and DEP officials.
• May 31, 2017: A DEP report finds over two dozen soil samples contain the man-made chemical PCB-1260 in excess of the state’s direct residential exposure criteria of 500 micrograms per kilogram. The samples range from 800 to 860,000 micrograms per kilogram — with those on the higher end more than 1,700 times the advisable limit.
Then-director of DEP, Michael Sole, who took on the role in January 2007, declined to comment. Sole left his position in 2010 and is now a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner, and a vice president of environmental services for NextEra Energy. Inc.
By November, an agreement was reached that brought the federal government, Gainesville and Unisys together to fund efforts that would further assess problems on the site. Each party was able to deny liability for the conditions and for any costs associated with the “alleged release or alleged threat of release of hazardous substances.”
Instead, they agreed on this split to cover future assessment costs:
- Unisys: 63%
- U.S. Government: 23%
- City of Gainesville: 13.4% or $20,000
(Unisys and the federal government’s percent contribution would be adjusted if the city paid $20,000.)
Unisys was given oversight responsibility and control of the day-to-day remediation efforts carried out by mutually agreed upon contractors, according to the agreement.
City of Gainesville Public Information Officer Chip Skinner said he had “zero information” regarding a series of questions concerning the city’s relationship with the Job Corps program.
Cleanup efforts have proven effective, but TCE samples in one test well still showed concentrations above the DEP’s natural concentration guidelines, according to an October 2018 report.
Before and after the lawsuit, numerous other issues with the site arose, including a lack of upkeep with the aging facility.
According to a 2013 Facility Planning Report, estimated repair costs for the campus could exceed $500,000, and over $250,000 in funded projects had not been corrected years after they were first discovered.
In one example, the report found the center was allocated $120,381 in 2003 to overhaul its 48-year-old sprinkler systems, which were sometimes taped over, not extended to new ceiling heights or missing altogether. The problem was not resolved as of a December 2012 review.
Additionally, the campus has been under a “no dig” order since at least 2010, which prevents work– such as pipe repairs – that comes into contact with contaminated soil without special permission, according to DEP emails and federal reports.
The educational conditions were as much in flux as the environmental predicaments; ebbing and flowing as new contracts would be handed out every five years.
Just three months before the center closed, a national ranking of educational standards placed Gainesville at 111 out of 125 locations, according to Labor Department statistics.
The center was run by one of the largest operators in 2009 and had come under scrutiny from the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General.
A 2009 federal audit on Del-Jen Inc. found the company did not ensure compliance with numerous required safety standards in its Gainesville and Albuquerque, New Mexico centers.
The Gainesville center was singled out in that audit for its unsafe and unhealthy conditions within its bathrooms, cafeterias and kitchens, which contained expired cans of tuna dating back to 2000.
Equally troubling was the revelation that 76% of significant incidents during the audit period went unreported to Job Corps officials outside the center. The 29 incidents included assaults resulting in bodily harm, possession of weapons, including guns, and possession or sale of drugs.
Del-Jen generally concurred with the findings and agreed to work on steps to improve reporting practices.
The Inspector General also reviewed but could not substantiate five allegations dealing with problems of discrimination, fraud and accepting students with felony records, which is against Job Corps rules.
One of the first companies to run the center starting in 1984 was also reviewed by the Department of Labor’s internal watchdog. The Teledyne Economic Development Co. was investigated in 1986 for its failure to meet critical performance goals, apparent distortion of performance statistics and high levels of students, known as corps members, leaving the center unchecked.
And yet, the center still served as a beacon for thousands of students hoping to learn a skill within the wide range of opportunities on site.
One of the most innovative was the solar energy program, one of only two in the entire country when launched in 2011. The center tapped Erick Green, already an instructor at the site, to lead the program.
Green, who had a background in the solar field, choose about 20 students a year from across the country to learn the trade. By 2017, over 100 students from as far as Alaska finished the advanced program and were able to be placed directly into related fields, according to Green.
The center over the years hosted at least a dozen technical specialties from a popular automotive sector to a homeland security track that prepared candidates for law enforcement careers.
But passion for the vocational program couldn’t stop the issues that have made it difficult for Job Corps centers around the country from excelling like they once had. A 2018 inspector general report on the $1.7 billion program found the “Job Corps could not demonstrate the extent to which its training programs helped participants enter meaningful jobs appropriate to their training.”
In March 2019, a White House budget proposed reforms to the program that would make it easier to close low-performing centers while boosting center safety and focusing the program on “older youth.”
That announcement came on the heels of the federal government’s January proposal to consolidate the Gainesville center with the state’s three other locations. The move would effectively close the center in lieu of spending an estimated $10.3 million in repairs that would address mold growth, the collapsing sewage lines and the removal of about 12,000 square feet of asbestos floor tiles.
The Local Response
Gainesville officials during a January policy meeting called the move a complete reversal from previous discussions with the Labor Department. Those discussions had included a promise that Job Corps funding would stay in the city — for a new program — even if the center were permanently closed.
Now, a partnership between the city, county and other interests has pushed for a revamped Job Corps program that will be presented to the Labor Department.
The plan could include using land swaps to establish a new “academically-appropriate” campus or series of campuses, according to city talking points and a draft letter of the proposal. There has yet to be any discussion of the specific programs to be offered, although Santa Fe College is a member of the partnership.
U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, who is not a member of the partnership, opposed the January federal announcement in public comments to the Federal Register.
“The closure of the Gainesville Job Corps facility would result in a net loss of training opportunities targeted at disconnected youth in my district,” Yoho’s letter said.
As the students were hastily transferred away from the site in September 2017, staff members tried their best to ensure students got to new centers, Karen Curran said. She worked closely with the center director.
But the challenge was massive and by Oct. 11, the remaining 125 staff members were laid off, according to a WARN letter from Odle Management.
Curran and a skeleton crew stayed behind in a last ditch effort to ensure everything from medical files to shoes and other belongings were transferred securely and properly.
Today, only a security guard mans the perimeter, keeping out curious children attracted to the fleet of vehicles still in a back parking lot.
Curran found work in a local law firm. Romine finished his automotive program in Virginia only a few months after arriving.
Living with his parents in Louisiana, he’s soon going to begin looking for a career in the automotive sector with the skills he learned from the Gainesville Job Corps Center combined with his passion for the field.
“I can change oil,” Romine said, “so they did their job.”