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By Sarah Dowling | SourceDespite stormy weather, hundreds gathered at an empty field in Winters, imagining what it will become in little more than a year.
With a few shovelfuls of earth, the Monday groundbreaking ceremony ushered in the beginning of construction on a $75 million facility — located on East Grant Avenue — designed to train the next generation of PG&E employees.
Specifically geared toward the company’s gas division, once completed the 110,000-square-foot campus will serve between 100- and 150 employees on a daily basis, or about 36,000 training hours per year. Work on the facility begins this week.
With rain in the forecast throughout the day, the event took place under a large, white tent, which could be seen from Interstate-505 nearby.Marked by blue and yellow balloons — PG&E’s signature colors — more than 300 people filed in, ready to learn more about the project’s beginnings and future. Poster boards depicting renderings of the facility gave passers-by a glimpse into both.
Alisa Okelo-Odongo, who works in PG&E’s government relations department, kicked off the event with a safety message, which is how all PG&E meetings begin, she said.
From the small stage, Okelo-Odongo pointed to the exits, joking that normally she would choose someone to call 911, but with dozens of law enforcement and fire department officials present, she did think it was necessary.
After the laughs settled down, she took the time to introduce her fellow PG&E employees, as well as city officials, who helped bring the project to life.
Her speech was followed by Nick Stavropoulos, president of PG&E’s gas division, who was asked to lead about nine months after the San Bruno explosion. Trying to get a handle on what needed to be done to prevent future incidents, he surveyed PG&E employees and found that what they wanted were more people and more training.
Throughout the past three years, 1,200 new workers came to PG&E’s gas division, “but these folks need to be trained,” Stavropoulos said.
With the Winters project in motion, they will be.
“My vision from the first day I came was to build the best industry-leading training center for gas workers in the world,” Stavropoulos said. “It took a little longer than I wanted, but quite frankly it was important to take the time necessary because we wanted to do it right.”
Specifically, PG&E began talks with city officials in May 2013 — a time Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry remembers well.
“We sat across the table from you and you were all dressed in your suits and we must admit we were wondering what the heck you wanted,” she said, addressing PG&E employees in the audience. “We were very curious and we were all ears.”
PG&E officials told Aguiar-Curry the company is “at a turning point on gas safety,” sharing their vision for a state-of-the-art training facility for that division. The utility company already owned land in Winters, making it a potential location for the project.
“As you and your staff descended the staircase at City Hall that day and said our goodbyes, we rushed to the window almost like it was Santa Claus leaving,” Aguiar-Curry said. “We watched you drive away. That was our moment, when we all looked at each other in amazement and said ‘could this really happen?’”
Following the initial meeting, city staff answered their own question, determined to do everything they could to make it happen.
“We wanted this project to happen here,” Aguiar-Curry said, emphasizing that a partnership was their number one concern moving forward.
Now, two and a half years later, this partnership is entering a new phase — construction.
Once the facility is built, it will be at the “front door” of the city. Expanding on this idea, Aguiar-Curry thought it was only fitting to give Stavropoulos a key to the city.
This exchange led to others.
Putah Creek’s proximity to the project inspired two gifts from PG&E — a $200,000 check for creek restoration and a bench, which will be built along the creek for people to use.
Putting on PG&E hard hats and wielding golden shovels, the group moved from on stage to before it, using a sandbox-like patch for the ceremonial groundbreaking. The temporary tent floor was assembled around this plot, allowing the shovels to make their debut despite the rain.
Once the shovels broke through the soil, a group of elected officials made their way on stage, to share their thoughts.
“It is an extraordinary day, but not a surprise,” said Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis. “This project is about a safer energy future for California.”
Wolk also touched upon the San Bruno explosion, which necessitated “improved training” for PG&E employees.
Meanwhile, Fourth District Assemblyman Bill Dodd commemorated PG&E’s efforts during the recent Napa earthquake and slew of wildfires in his district.
“They have done nothing short of a wonderful, wonderful job,” he said.
Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor ended the festivities with a laugh, stating the atmosphere seemed more like a wedding than a groundbreaking.
“There are more people in here than are in the city of Winters,” he said.
Saylor congratulated the city on their efforts, noting their partnership with PG&E will affect Winters for years to come.
“This project will have ripples and impacts in the local economy that we can’t even participate,” he said.