Fortress Academy breaks ground in York City years after proposal

York Exponential Marketing Director Andrew Spangler walks through the future site of the Fortress Academy in the former Western National Bank in York City Friday, January 31, 2020. The academy will serve as a coding school and technology hub. Bill Kalina photo

A tech academy in the works for more than four years is nearing completion after the final phase of construction kicked off Monday.

Intended to be a coding school when it was first pitched in 2016, Fortress Academy has evolved with the industry, York Exponential CEO John McElligott said in December.

"We started focusing on coding to begin with, because we thought that was going to be a large need, but as technology began to develop, we realized the coding piece was going to shrink," he said.

Now the academy will begin with a 15-week program for 12 to 16 students ages 18 and older. Its focus has broadened from the original concept, now including artificial intelligence, robotics and internet of things.

Students will receive a certificate or diploma in "Robot Technician 1" upon completion of the program, which is expected to be ready for its first cycle in May, McElligott said.

Fortress Initiative — the nonprofit associated with the school — provided initial funding for the venture, which will operate out of the former Western National Bank, 301 W. Market St., in York City.

The building, donated to the York YMCA in the 1970s, will undergo its final stage of construction this winter for a cost between $775,000 and $875,000 for the final phase. Contractors broke ground on the project Monday, Feb. 10.

More:Closer Look: York Exponential may be first in York to reap opportunity zone benefits

A private, for-profit institution, Fortress is an L3C, meaning it would function as a low-profit business with the social benefits of a nonprofit, and its tax structure would allow foundations to make charitable investments.

YMCA York partnered with the initiative to bring in nonprofit and foundation donors and aid in the development of the program.

“It’s something that we can play a role in,” YMCA CEO Larry Richardson said, noting the program fills a gap in its own services and fits its community-oriented mission.

The Fortress building also will host local businesses and nonprofits and be a coworking space for technologists.

One of the main takeaways of the project, McElligott said, is that it's not just for college-bound students and technology majors — it's for everyone.

York Exponential Marketing Director Andrew Spangler talks about the original vault at the future site of the Fortress Academy in the former Western National Bank in York City Friday, January 31, 2020. The academy will serve as a coding school and technology hub. Bill Kalina photo

These skills will be the core of every business, he said, and there's a need for not just the technical expertise but the skilled labor behind them.

"Robots won't go viral," McElligott said. "They're going to need a workforce to take care of them."

Anne Hughes, president and CEO of the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania, said the academy will ensure that more workers stay local, which is important with such a strong manufacturing base in York County.

"As a tech council, we’re hearing more and more employers that (are) having a hard time finding well-trained talent," she said.

McElligott also consulted with Red Lion Area Superintendent Scott Deisley to get a sense of student needs, not just in the city but throughout the county.

"We were able to be a sounding board for him," Deisley said, when reached last month.  

McElligott said if he tried to do this four years ago, it probably would have burned out quickly because there were not enough things in motion to support it.

The academy has faced a number of roadblocks since 2016, including waiting for permits to update historical sections of the building and obtaining a higher education license — a lengthy process that took at least a year and a half. 

More:Fortress Academy renovations to get underway

"I think maybe I underestimated how difficult that was going to be and how long it was going to take,”  McElligott said.

Local organizations were also not investing in many long-term projects at the time, based on a "scarcity mentality" that there was not enough money to go around, he said.

But after the death of well-known local philanthropist Louis J. Appell, some foundations grew in size, and having these larger foundations paired with new leaders in the city that were poised for innovation and development was a perfect storm for Fortress, McElligott said.

More:John McElligott plans to bring York to forefront in 'fourth industrial revolution'

It was a combination of timing, funding and forward motion on a much larger project — the York 2.0 plan — which propelled Fortress Academy.

Named after the original York Plan, in which manufacturers in York County banded together to provide defense materials for World War II and became a model for the state, the new plan would draw on the technology sector to create a robotics hub.

The plan received a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant for the construction of an innovation district in 2018. The former bank building would remain a technology center, but as the school expands, it would eventually move to the innovation district — called the Northwest Triangle — which is in a federal opportunity zone.

There's an opportunity to get ahead of the robotics trend, McElligott said.