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Vacant Elbert-Palmer Elementary School to become Port of Wilmington training center

Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media

The vacant Elbert-Palmer Elementary School in Wilmington's Southbridge neighborhood is set to become a training center for Port of Wilmington workers. 

Port operator GT USA Wilmington, a subsidiary of global logistics company Gulftainer, has agreed to lease the building from the Christina School District.


Elbert-Palmer Elementary School closed in June. Its students were transferred to schools elsewhere in the city this fall under a district consolidation plan that aims to improve student outcomes.

GT USA Wilmington CEO Eric Casey said in a statement emailed to Delaware Public Media that the company is exploring the best possible use for the property.

“We are in the early stages of fine tuning the prospects of creating a training center for jobs within the port, a hiring hall for use by the ILA union and an additional resource for the local community.” He adds the company will announce further details “in due course.”

“We are thrilled to have Gulftainer, a multinational corporation, bring an adult training service facility to our city," said Christina School District Superintendent Richard Gregg in an emailed statement. "My hope is that the Training Center for Excellence will breathe new life into the legacy of Elbert-Palmer and will have a meaningful impact on the lives of the people in this community."


Christina School Board approved the unsigned lease last week. Under the ten-year lease, the company will pay the district just $1 a year, but cover renovation and maintenance costs. 

School Board member Fred Polaski says the deal will save Christina money. “That eliminates the cost that Christina would have to keep the heat on in the building and keep repairs on it, even though we’re not using it,” he said. “It eliminates the cost for us and makes good use of the building.”

Last year’s Memorandum of Understanding between the state and Christina guiding the reconfiguration of the school district’s Wilmington schools states that the district retains ownership of the buildings formerly housing Elbert-Palmer and Pulaski Elementary School, and may choose to lease them to generate revenue for the district. However, it says that should the plan to improve the Wilmington schools draw students to the district, the two buildings would be available to address student needs. Under the agreement, the state and the district are to ensure the buildings are used to address “community-identified needs.”

Wilmington City Councilmember Michele Harlee, who represents Southbridge, supports the deal. 

“Hands-down, it’s a win-win for everyone involved,” she said. “For Gulftainer, as it relates to what they’re going to need once these jobs come into Wilmington, into South Wilmington … and for Christina School District, they no longer have it as a liability.”

Southbridge Civic Association President Marie Reed says she is “very, very, very excited” about the plan. 

“It’s going to hopefully employ some people from the community, give second chances,” she said. “My thing is to work with some of those workers to get them to buy some of our vacant properties in Southbridge, to turn them into wonderful homes. To use our services, that we have a wonderful day care at our neighborhood house. We have a full-fledged medical center. And all the opportunities here in Southbridge. And also bring new businesses to the community.”

Marie also hopes the neighborhood can reach a community benefits agreement with the port that would see GT USA funding educational programs for the youth. “Work with the institutions of higher learning to teach our children from the daycares up to the community centers,” she said. “Working with them to assist in educating our children, because we don’t have a community school where they can go to.”

“Our youth may be their future workers,” she added.

Harlee says the community wants to make sure that “sustainable educational initiatives” are put in place to fill the void left by the closure of Elbert-Palmer Elementary School.

“Now that the school is no longer in the community, we have to figure out how we can bring all the educational stakeholders together in the Southbridge Community and to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks as it relates to all the children having now to get adjusted to the transition,” she said. 

Gov. John Carney expressed support for the deal in a statement emailed to Delaware Public Media.  

“For decades, jobs at the Port of Wilmington have helped stabilize Delaware families and the communities where they live,” said Carney. “When we announced our agreement last year with Gulftainer and the International Longshoremen’s Association to significantly expand the Port, we talked about the importance of providing training and resources for Delaware workers who will have access to new, good-paying jobs. This partnership at Palmer will deliver on that promise. This facility and the training provided there will strengthen our workforce and help prepare a new generation of Delaware workers for the Port jobs of the future. Thank you to Gulftainer, the ILA, and all of our partners in this effort.”

In a press release this spring, GT USA Wilmington officials said, under the port expansion agreement, the company planned to establish a training facility specific to the ports and logistics industries to train up to 1,000 people a year.

Norman Davis of the International Longshoremen’s Association local 1694-1 told Delaware Public Media in September 2018, when the port lease was signed, that training for existing port workers was his top priority.

“A lot of the ILA members, you know some of us have high school diplomas, some of us don’t. Some of us do have college degrees,” said Davis at the time. ”The main thing is that we want to maintain that these stay union jobs, and that we learn the technology, the new technology.”

Gulftainer board chair Badr Jafar said at the time the company planned to create a ports and logistics training center beside the new container terminal the company has agreed to build at the old DuPont Edgemoor site.

“Powered by the latest technology, this center will offer reskilling and upskilling services to ensure that members of the community aspiring to a career in this sector will receive the training and mentorship they deserve,” said Jafar.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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