"We offer our support for their downtown center," ETSU President Paul Stanton said, adding that a similar center appeared to work well in Greenville, S.C. "I think the concept is a good one."
Proponents have pitched a higher education center in downtown Kingsport to offer four-year degrees from various institutions despite the nearby presence of ETSU at Kingsport, a satellite campus ETSU once shared with the University of Tennessee, and the main ETSU campus just 25 miles down Interstate 26 in Johnson City.
Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips said he considers ETSU at Kingsport underutilized, and his goals for the downtown center include making higher education more accessible to improve education levels in the region.
"To some people, 25 miles away might as well be 1,000 miles away," Phillips said, adding that the drive to and from Johnson City is particularly prohibitive to Kingsport area residents with jobs and families. "We are not doing a good job of educating our graduates."
Asked whether the discussions could be related to old rivalries between the neighboring cities, Stanton acknowledged the dynamic.
"I think there's some feeling that ETSU is a Johnson City university and that we don't care about Kingsport," he said. "The truth is we have maintained a strong presence in Kingsport going back to 1959.
"So, we are committed to Kingsport ... but we can't duplicate. It would be non-cost-effective totally."
Still, Stanton said he did not consider Kingsport's plans in competition for ETSU, especially if the downtown center offers programs that ETSU cannot offer. He cited discussions about the possibility that UT would offer a chemical engineering degree in Kingsport.
"We want the downtown center to be a success for them, and we have no equivocation on that," Stanton said.
Phillips said though he would prefer that ETSU join the downtown center, Kingsport's efforts were in no way adversarial toward the university.
"Hopefully, we can complement each other," Phillips said. "We certainly consider Dr. Stanton a friend. You can have differences of opinion without being adversarial.
"Education should always be about the student, not the school or the city."
Kingsport's proposed center, which would be operated by Blountville-based Northeast State Technical Community College, has attracted interest from such Tennessee institutions as UT, Milligan College, King College in Bristol, Tusculum College in Greeneville, Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, as well as Emory & Henry College in Virginia.
Proponents also contacted ETSU about participation, but administrators chose not to join.
That's OK by Phillips.
"We have more schools wanting in than we can probably take," Phillips said. "Our problem is accommodating them all."
Stanton said ETSU already operates a perfectly good Kingsport facility that he has no intentions of abandoning. In fact, he hopes to expand that presence with offerings to attract an additional 100 students per year over the next five years, nearly doubling enrollment.
Since 1971, ETSU's Kingsport offerings have been housed in McCune-Welch Hall - formerly known as the Kingsport University Center - an 80,000-square-foot facility in west Kingsport. Stanton noted that the 100-acre campus is just 4.5 miles from the preferred location for the center downtown.
The university conducts about 100 courses each semester, including much of its general core curriculum, via ETSU at Kingsport. The satellite offers bachelor's degrees in management and general studies; master's degree cohort programs in reading education and early childhood; a master of business administration degree; and two years of pre-professional studies for medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary, optometry and other sciences.
By taking courses at the satellite campus and taking advantage of distance-learning opportunities, Stanton said, students can limit travel to the main campus for other courses while completing many of ETSU's other four-year degree programs.
Besides, the downtown center would offer 40,000 to 50,000 square feet and house numerous tenants, Stanton said, compared to ETSU's position as the sole occupant in a facility with twice the space.
He noted that Kingsport residents are not the sole population served by the satellite campus. About 40 percent of students who take classes there come from Hawkins County and Southwest Virginia given the west Kingsport location's convenience.
The ETSU president also said an estimated 1,100 students from Kingsport take courses on the main campus in Johnson City, and the administration had received no complaints from students about access.
Phillips said if the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen approves the proposal when he presents it in March, he would hope to begin construction in the first quarter of 2008 and open the downtown center in 2009.