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Community leaders share vision for downtown education center

Matthew Lane • Mar 16, 2007 at 12:51 PM

KINGSPORT - A group of local educators, employers and community leaders presented their case Thursday night for the creation of a higher education center in downtown Kingsport.

The matter now lies in the hands of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, which will decide next week whether or not to move forward with the $10 million project.

The idea of a higher education center in Kingsport dates back nearly 20 years - the idea was first mentioned during the Vision 2017 process in 1989, then in the Model City Coalition plan and again in 1999 during an economic planning summit.

For nearly two years a committee of educators, employers and community leaders has been working on a plan to bring a higher education center to the Model City - focusing on the building and site selection, governance, financing, academic programming and communications.

On Thursday, the committee gave the BMA a nearly two-hour presentation on the proposal, including the history of the project, some details about the proposed facility, testimonials from local employers on their work force needs, and support pledges from several colleges and universities.

The proposed center is being modeled, in part, after a multi-college higher education center in Greenville, S.C., where several different colleges offer associate, bachelor's and master's degrees under one roof.

The committee's vision is for Northeast State Technical Community College to operate the facility and offer the first two years worth of core courses to students. Participating universities and colleges would then offer their bachelor's and master's programs. Degrees would be in the name of the university offering the program. Classes would be offered in sequence in order for students to obtain a degree in a specified amount of time.

"This is a lifelong learning opportunity, an opportunity that hasn't come along in a long time and it may be a long time coming if we don't do it now," said Bill Locke, president of Northeast State.

Vice Mayor Larry Munsey gave a report on the financing options for the facility, saying there are two size options for the facility - one being 50,000 square feet and the other being 55,000 square feet, 5,000 of which would be reserved for retail space. The committee is recommending the building be large enough to accommodate 2,000 students.

Munsey said the funding options include having a private developer build the facility, which would result in no up-front capital costs.

However, a profit margin would be built into this option, the lease would be more expensive, and the rent would be higher for participating colleges and universities.

The funding could be rolled into general obligation bonds, but the project would compete with other projects in the city's capital improvement plan, Munsey said, adding that a portion of the regional sales tax could be used to fund the project.

However, those funds might be earmarked for at least the next two years.

"Among all of the options we looked at, none require an increase in the property tax rate," Munsey said. "We've examined all practical financing options, and none restrain our current and future capital funds."

Munsey said these figures are cost projections, and accurate costs would not be determined until an architect is hired. Locke said he fully expects the state to provide rental and maintenance money for the facility.

The committee looked at 14 sites in downtown Kingsport and narrowed the list down to four - two of which are owned by the city - the Shelby Street parking lot and the Clinchfield Street parking lot.

A veritable who's who of movers and shakers in the Tri-Cities filled the meeting room Thursday night, many of whom were in support of the project.

For nearly two hours employers and education officials gave testimonials in support of the higher education center, including representatives from Eastman Chemical Co., AccuForce and Bank of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee, King College, Tusculum College, Lincoln Memorial University and the Tennessee Board of Regents have all pledged their support for the center.

AccuForce CEO Larry Nunley said an educated and skilled work force is the biggest challenge facing the city today.

"Our number one issue is we can't find educated and skilled workers to meet the growing demands," Nunley said. "This is a game we're losing badly in this region. You have the opportunity to make a difference in the community. It must go through. We have to have it. My passion is for (Kingsport) to not be a lagger, but a leader."

David Gregory, vice chancellor for the TBR, pledged his support for the project.

"We are an undereducated state. Not only do we lag behind the nation, but we're behind the Southeastern states," Gregory said. "You can wring your hands and do nothing or dig in and do something about it."

Following the presentation, Alderman Pat Shull said he had five pages of questions regarding the higher education center. The questions range from how the committee determined the need for the center, the location of the center, questions about financing, what courses are to be offered, and how the project would impact the city's capital improvement project plan.

"Why should Kingsport do it and not the state of Tennessee?" Shull asked.

Keith Wilson, Times-News publisher and one of the main advocates for the project, said the state is not going to come and bail out Kingsport.

"If the job is going to get done, we're going to have to do it," Wilson said.

Shull said his list of questions came not only from himself, but from citizens who were not comfortable in getting up at the lectern and asking them.

"If we're going to have a real discussion, we need to examine all these sides," Shull said. "It's ludicrous to vote on an issue as complex as this. We need to give the public more time to consider this."

Alderman Ken Marsh said he too had a lot of questions but added he did not think Thursday night was the time to start down them.

"This should not be railroaded through," Marsh said.

Mayor Dennis Phillips, another advocate for the center, said he intends to bring two proposals before the BMA next Tuesday - whether to build the center and where the funding is going to come from. Phillips said "if you're not bored enough," citizens could watch Thursday's meeting again on the city's government access channel over the weekend.

"One problem Kingsport has had in the past is we'll study something to death and put it in the library and let it gather dust," Phillips said.

The BMA is expected to further discuss the proposal during its regular work session Monday afternoon.

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