PG&E will build its training facility in Winters

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After months of flirting with the Winters community, PG&E officials finally made their decision: The new gas line safety facility is coming to town.

The $75 million project will attract gas line professionals from across the country, where they will get hands-on experience with excavating equipment, repairs and welding, and workplace safety. Visitors also will learn about emerging technologies as well as protocols to “enhance customer and employee safety, and system reliability,” said PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler.

He said utility officials turned in their planning application to City Hall on Monday, which is the first step of the process. The announcement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting was made in front of a council chambers so packed that the crowd spilled out into the foyer and onto the sidewalk.

“The application submission is one of many milestones. We’re here tonight to celebrate this milestone,” said Alisa Okelo-Odongo, PG&E’s manager of government relations.

Cutler said ground should be broken for the project next summer. PG&E will purchase 35 acres on the southwest corner of the intersection of Interstate 505 and Grant Avenue.

The tentative designs that were displayed at several community workshops over the past year are undergoing some changes, he said, and the classroom facility will be closer to the freeway than was originally planned.

“We will be working closely with the city and the community,” Cutler said. “We’ll have open houses and provide more information as the planning process moves forward. There will be plenty of time for questions and inquiries regarding the project, and we will make sure that voices are heard.”

Cutler had no projected date for completion of the project.

“It will depend on a number of things going on,” he said. “Once we have approval, then we’ll have the full scope of the project. We’re excited to get started.”

Although rumors that PG&E was considering other communities right up until the last moment floated around town, Cutler says PG&E officials finally decided that Winters is “the right place for us.”

“The location of the property was right, the community support was strong. We had an opportunity to make a meaningful and lasting impact on a community, and we thought that partnership was there with Winters.”

The utility’s decision to build a training facility is “about the future,” Cutler said, and is not a response to the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in 2010, which killed eight people. The California Public Utilities Commission found PG&E to be at fault and fined the utility $1.4 billion.

A 2011 investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found PG&E’s safety management of its pipelines deficient and ineffective.

“Everything we do is focused on making sure that we become the safest and most reliable gas system in the entire country,” Cutler said. “We invest in safety and protocols, and employee training to give the best service that we can.

“Training is a very important aspect of that. You need to know how to use the best and newest stuff, and this is the place you’ll learn how to do it.”

Said Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, “It is very satisfying to see a project come to fruition after so much effort by so many. I believe we will look back at this and see the pivotal importance of this accomplishment. The partnership with PG&E will yield many economic benefits to our businesses, schools and local government.”

Winters City Manager John Donlevy also expressed satisfaction with the project, which he called “a real catalyst for the Winters community.”

“The training facility will be a destination for PG&E’s Gas Division workforce, which makes up almost 8,000 employees of the 20,000 employed by the company.”

Donlevy said the new training facility will be state-of-the-art, not only for current technology but also for research and development in the future. He added that the facility is expected to be a financial boon to the business community.

“This is a major economic development project for Winters,” the city manager said. “The (facility) will help create a lodging demand to support both a downtown and freeway hotel — lodging that has been important goals for the city

“The prospect of having up to 250 trainees in town during the week will help our local business community and advance job creation. The multiplication of projects resulting from the facility will be substantial, and the growth and revenue to the city’s tax base will be meaningful.”

— Reach Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com

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