New Castle County officials joined with veterans and the founder of a job training program for veterans hailed as the first of its kind in the nation on Monday in Odessa.

After searching for years for a home for the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative, founder Sam Cannan thanked New Castle County government for providing the first home to the program in the former county paramedic station on U.S. Route 13 at Sixth Street in Odessa.

“When I started this I had no idea this would wind up here and I thank everyone who contributed,” said Cannan, a master watchmaker and a retired Baltimore police officer. “I will do New Castle County, the Town of Odessa and the State of Delaware proud with this project.”

The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative is modeled after a post-World War II program to train veterans, especially those with disabilities, in the profession of watch repair.

County Executive Thomas P. Gordon said since he heard about the program, “the county has been in 100 percent.”

“I’ve never heard of such a great concept that can benefit so many while costing so little,” said Gordon. “It’s a no-brainer.”

“We are honored to have solved the location problem for this nationally unique nonprofit, so it can get started providing training and good jobs for those who sacrificed the most serving our country,” he said. “New Castle County soon will have our country’s only technical training facility focusing on veterans with disabilities. They deserve this.”

More than two years ago, the group announced a goal of opening in a former elementary school building in southern Delaware, but that fell through. In November 2014, Richard and Geri Money of Middletown gave the program four acres of commercially-zoned land and the site plan won unanimous approval from Middletown Town Council.

“That was really incredible and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the Moneys’ generosity,” said Cannan.

But with millions of dollars to raise for the Middletown site construction, Cannan kept looking for a place where the program could start sooner. That’s where New Castle County came in, agreeing to lease the program the long-vacant building in Odessa, with a 10-year lease at $1 a year and option for renewal.

The town actually has a long history in the clock making business, according to Historic Odessa Foundation Executive Director Deborah Buckson, who described the craftsmen who made clocks and clock cases in the area dating back to the 1700s.

Cannan said the program will use the Odessa site as the training facility until the new school can be built at the land donated by the Moneys. Then he’s hoping to use the former paramedic facility as the headquarters office for the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative.

WAITING LIST OF VETERANS READY TO START TRAINING

Already, 38 veterans have been approved to start the training program and 348 more have applied, Cannan said.

“This is really exciting,” said Rick Hofmann, a veteran with disability, who says he hopes to be in the first group the program trains. “It’s a tremendous opportunity, so needed.”

Veterans who complete training will have “instant employment,” Cannan said, citing a massive need for watchmakers. There are fewer than 3,000 nationwide and more than 4,000 more needed just to meet current demand created by a global revival of mechanical watches.

“These jobs can start at about $85,000 a year,” Cannan added, and veterans will not be charged any fees for training. “They don’t pay anything and the VA doesn’t pay anything and all the instructors are unpaid volunteers.”

The program already has commitments from a few luxury watch companies to handle their repairs – and is looking for willing jewelers as well.

The Bulova Watch Company’s training program after World War II was a huge success, but closed before the company was sold decades later. Cannan reached out to the Bulova family, which happily gave its blessing for him to create the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative on the operational model of the original Bulova School.

“They were just thrilled that it wouldn’t be lost to history,” Cannan said.

Among those who will benefit the most, he said, are veterans who have become isolated due to severe or disfiguring disabilities.

“And more than jobs, this will provide a community where veterans will be comfortable and feel valued,” he said, adding, “because they are. They will have friends, people who care and people who understand what they went through, what they’re going through.”

As the program gets established and generates repair contracts, Cannan said fundraising will focus on the Middletown facility, tentatively called The Technical Center at Moneys’ Farm.

As for the former paramedic station, Cannan said some work has to be done before the training center can open – mainly painting and installing new flooring – but they hope to begin in January, depending on fundraising.

HOW TO HELP

The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative, established with legal assistance provided pro bono, has federal certification as a 501(c)(3) organization, making donations tax-deductible.

Donations are welcomed in checks payable to The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative Inc. at P.O. Box 329, Little Creek, DE 19961.

Tax-deductible contributions also may be made securely under “Donation page” at www.veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org, the nonprofit’s site where more information is posted. Information also is available at www.facebook.com/veteranswatchmakerinitiative.

Information and quotes from a New Castle County press release are included in this story.