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Fortress Academy gets kickstart with $300K state grant

From left, John McElligott, Chief Executive Officer of The Fortress Academy and York Exponential, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and State Representative Stan Saylor (R-York) practice the "Corona bump" in lieu of shading hands, after announcing Thursday, March 12, 2020, a $375,000 grant from the state department of education to train students at the academy. The announcement took place on the steps of the academy building, a former bank, which is being renovated. Bill Kalina photo

Fortress Academy will receive more than $300,000 in grant money from the state to kickstart its efforts to bridge robotics and technology with manufacturing in York City.

John McElligott, CEO of York Exponential and the mastermind behind the project, announced Thursday that the academy — slated to open this summer — was awarded a $375,000 workforce development grant from the state Department of Education.

The grant will fund curriculum development, scholarships, new technologies and instructors and student recruitment in the academy, located in the former Western National Bank, at 301 West Market Street.

Marketing events aimed at reaching students are expected to begin in June.

The academy, a four-year effort is part of a larger vision to create a robotics ecosystem in York City. It will focus on micro-credentialing and accelerated education — offering 15-week classes to build on technology and workforce-related skills.

More:Fortress Academy breaks ground in York City years after proposal

McElligott said he is not trying to compete with four-year or community colleges. The model offers the flexibility to add new curriculum as technology advances, he said.

Fortress is an L3C, meaning it would function as a low-profit business, maintaining a tax structure that would allow foundations to make charitable investments.

McElligott said tuition will be $8,900 for the full 15-week program, but costs for shorter courses and training programs will be more varied.

The grant would be for a year, and the goal would be to eventually self-sustain through capital and add similar academies in communities beyond York, he said.

That's part of the reason why McElligott opted to work with the YMCA — they are in communities everywhere, he said.

John McElligott, Chief Executive Officer of The Fortress Academy and York Exponential, talks with people before a pressconference outside the academy Thursday, March 12, 2020. McElligott was joined by York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and State Representative Stan Saylor (R-York) to announce a $375,000 grant from the state department of education to train students at the academy. The announcement took place on the steps of the academy building, a former bank, which is being renovated. Bill Kalina photo

Local politicians are throwing their support behind the project.

"It's just the crest of a first wave," York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said, adding that he hopes Fortress will help York get ahead of the next localized industrial revolution.

Only a block away, Yorkers were inventing steam locomotives in the first industrial revolution, and in the second, there were car manufacturers all over York. But the third wave of telecommunications passed the city by, Helfrich said.

"The wealth that was generated and is generated by these revolutions did not visit York the way it did in the past," Helfrich said.

State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said Gov. Tom Wolf has been behind Fortress from the beginning — awarding an Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant of $6 million for the innovation district including Fortress.

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

John McElligott, Chief Executive Officer of The Fortress Academy and York Exponential, center, is joined by York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, center left, and State Representative Stan Saylor (R-York) to announce Thursday, March 12, 2020, a $375,000 grant from the state department of education to train students at the academy. The announcement took place on the steps of the academy building, a former bank, which is being renovated. Bill Kalina photo

The new state grant for the academy came from a focus in the budget this year on job training, Saylor said.

"The city of York is a vital part of our county," he said. "(The governor and I) want to see Pennsylvania become truly the Keystone state for this nation again in technology, job creation and moving our country forward."

The goal of the academy is to pair blue collar mechanical jobs with technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence — and to expand that education throughout the Northwest Triangle, a larger York-area hub in a federal opportunity zone. 

"No one has tried this before, so for us to be able to do this first in York, Pennsylvania harkens back to being the first capital, saving the world in World War II and again giving us the opportunity," McElligott said. 

Joe Hackett, a former chairman of the York YMCA, said he hopes the training offered at the academy will have the dual benefit of building manufacturing skills, while also getting those interested in those jobs exposed to more math and science.

"The Y is extraordinarily interested in reaching the community that you see represented here — typically the underrepresented and the underserved community in the city," he said.

Exposure to technologies such as drone and 3D printing could foster not only an interest but an aptitude for these skills, Hackett said.

McElligott said construction on the building will wrap up around May or June, and the academy's first  students should be welcomed by this fall. The program will start with 12 students, he said, with plans to extend to 24 students next year.