ACE Breaks Ground on $4.6-Million Project Skylab Center in Lakeland

The new facility at KLAL will add capacity to all growing ACE programs.

ACE Skylab Project
Architectural rendering of new Project Skylab facility.Courtesy of Aerospace Center for Excellence

The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) in Lakeland, Florida, is “literally exploding at the seams,” according to ACE officials. Their ultimate mission of STEM-related aerospace education and workforce development continues to add exciting new youth programs that engage over 50,000 students a year through its various learning centers, outreach programs, summer camps, and scholarships.

With such increased growth came the need to expand the ACE facilities, and on January 15, 2020, the media and public joined ACE officials at the Sun ‘n Fun Expo Campus to break ground on Project SkyLab, a $4.6-million expanded facility that will provide 8,000 square feet of new convertible educational/event/exhibit space, a new lobby/entrance that may double as a pre-function event space or house additional artifacts, a new state-of-the-art simulator training lab, a holographic theatre/planetarium, an Aerospace Resource Center, and new ACE corporate headquarters and educator planning space.

Through Project SkyLab, ACE will build more classroom space for both formal and informal STEM learning and museum programs while also leveraging partnerships with higher education training partners who will utilize the ACE facility to expand their curriculum centers and workforce training programs. Some of those higher education partners providing laboratory learning opportunities and workforce training program facilities to Project Skylab include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Southeastern University, Polk State College, and Florida Polytechnic University.

In addition to private and corporate donations, Project SkyLab was the recipient of a $493,000 grant from the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs because of the support of the Polk County Legislative Delegation. “Although there is a ways to go to reach the final goal, committed funds encouraged the ACE Board of Directors to move forward with construction ahead of the original timeline,” ACE officials said.

ACE Skylab Project
ACE and local officials break ground to begin construction of the Project Skylab facility.Courtesy of Aerospace Center for Excellence

“ACE is a very special and important launchpad for the aerospace industry as our programs and scholarships have caught their attention worldwide,” said John “Lites” Leenhouts, President and CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence. “Because of the belief in our collective vision, ACE has the potential to be a major resource in staffing the future of the aerospace industry with its next leaders.”

Since 2012, ACE’s Scholarship Program has enabled over 140 students, from 16 to 18 years of age, to complete their solo flights, and 98 have gone on to earn their private pilot certificates. “This program has grown and accelerated over time due in large part to the dedication of our Director of Scholarships, Richele Floyd,” said ACE Director of Marketing Carol Cali. “Her oversight and mentorship of between 40 to 50 students in the pipeline in any given month is what makes this a robust program. Since 2016, the success rate of students receiving their certificate is 90 percent, and ACE now has the proud distinction of being the world’s leader in producing licensed teenage private pilots.”

In November 2019, 32 students placed special engraved commemorative bricks in the Pathway to Success walkway in front of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA), located on the Sun 'n Fun Expo Campus. The annual Solo to Success Ceremony sponsored by ACE recognizes the exceptional accomplishment of students 16 to 18 years of age that have completed the necessary steps to solo an aircraft in the past 12 months. “We are thrilled to recognize these 32 young men and women, and one CFAA teacher, on this major accomplishment,” Leenhouts said. "The Solo to Success Ceremony commemorates not only the first milestone along a young person's path to flight, but also their commitment to excellence no matter what path they choose in life.”

Year-round funding for ACE includes more than $2 million from proceeds generated at the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, one of the world’s largest aviation events. The 2020 Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo is scheduled for March 31 to April 5, 2020, at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.