THIEF RIVER FALLS-Northland Community and Technical College students will have a new educational aerospace building at the Thief River Falls airport by fall.

Dean of Workforce and Economic Development Jim Retka said the project, which has been in the works for four years, is slated to be about 90 percent complete by March and completed in June, so students will be able to use the facility at the beginning of the fall semester.

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"It was the best facility at a two-year college in the country, and the goal was to maintain that and raise the bar, designing it around the next generation of aerospace technology," he said.

NCTC has two campuses: one in East Grand Forks and another in Thief River Falls, which has a facility at the airport.

"It's a pretty cool facility for a two-year college," Retka said while giving a tour there.

During the summer of 2014, bids were accepted to construct the $4.7 million structure at the Thief River Falls airport, but the bids came in more than $1 million over budget due to the construction climate at the time.

The bidding process began again in November 2014 and was more successful. Construction began in May with Foss Architecture and Interiors of Fargo and Terra General Contractors in Minnesota.

Clinton Castle, director of facilities at the Thief River Falls campus, said a lot of local contractors were subcontracted to do work on the building.

The funds for the project come from a state allocation meant to update two hangars and a classroom building that NCTC students use for hands-on learning with unmanned aerial systems and aviation repair.

"These rooms will have portable benches in them and so forth, even welding hoods and things like that, so we can move them around," Retka said. "We were trying to get away from permanent fixtures because we like flexible space."

In the interim, the unmanned systems program has been condensed to a small area of an existing hangar, but Retka said the program is an important part of meeting industry needs in the area.

For example, the Herald has reported the Grand Sky unmanned systems tech park that is under construction could bring $200 million to $300 million in development to the area.

Two outdated tin hangars were demolished during construction at the NCTC facility, Retka said, and the final building will have about 20,000 square feet of connected a multipurpose space, a hangar and labs. It will serve as a connecting building between existing classroom space and the 37,000-square-foot Swenson Hangar, which was built in 1992.

Retka said the new building will do more than attract students.

"It's really going to round out our offering at that site in terms of how we teach students well beyond the walls of Northland," he said.

Throughout construction, classes continued in the Swenson Hangar-which is filled entirely with large, partially disassembled airplanes used for repair study-and classroom space that will soon be part of one large aerospace facility.

"It's good for the students to get used to that because the new space is designed as multipurpose lab space," Retka said.

Retka said the idea is to train students on equipment they would use once out in the workforce.

In recent years, more than $10 million in grants awarded to NCTC has also been invested in the school's UAS and aerospace programs.

Retka said the U.S. Department of Labor has given NCTC about $10 million in grants that have been used to further the school's programs, $5 million in 2010 to start a UAS tech repair program and another $5 million in 2011 for an imagery analysis geospatial intelligence program to teach students how to analyze the data collected by UAS machines.

Other smaller grants from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation have gone toward acquiring equipment, and two full UAS systems from Israel were purchased with a $1 million Department of Labor grant.

Some grant money went toward building a $160,000 high-tech classroom at each campus and at the airport facility, with a Cisco video and phone system, Telepresence, that allows students and instructors to interact long-distance as if they are in the same meeting room on three large video screens.

"We did a test one time we were linked with Thief River Falls, Minneapolis, somewhere in Europe, somewhere in the Middle East with Northrop Grumman, and it was like we were all in the same building," Retka said.

Retka said a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building, which eliminates the need for students to go outside when moving from classroom to classroom, will most likely happen this spring.