For nearly two years a committee of educators, employers and community leaders has been working on a proposal that calls for a $10 million, 50,000-square-foot higher education center to be built in downtown Kingsport.
The committee's vision is for Northeast State Technical Community College to operate the facility and offer the first two years of core courses. 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.
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.
On Thursday the committee gave a nearly two-hour presentation on the proposal along with a show of support from the college and university officials, as well as Eastman Chemical, AccuForce and Bank of Tennessee.
The BMA is expected to discuss the matter further on Monday and then vote Tuesday night on whether to build the center and how it would be funded.
Shull composed a five-page list of questions he has about the proposal. Some he asked Thursday night, and many more are expected to be raised on Monday.
"It appears the mayor is going to force this to a vote on Tuesday night, and I'll have to make up my mind. I really believe that's not right - to try and bring it to some kind of vote that soon," Shull said, adding he has not heard enough about the proposal to say whether Kingsport needs a higher education center. "I would at least push it off for two more weeks, give the public the chance to catch up to this issue, to get some of the questions answered and to get the information disseminated."
Samples, who is running for alderman in the May city election, said he too believes the issue is being rushed by Phillips.
"I think the mayor is trying to rush it through prior to the election because he thinks he has enough support right now to get it passed," Samples said. "After the election there's a good possibility that they'll be three new board members and he (doesn't) think he'll have the support after the election."
Phillips denies rushing the issue.
"I don't know how you could rush an issue that's been worked on extensively since I have been mayor, since July 1, 2005, and was worked on before me," he said. "You talk about things and talk about them, and then when it comes time to take action on them, then it gives some people heartburn."
Phillips said he does not see the need to postpone the issue until after the May election and thinks it is fair for the BMA to vote on the center five days after hearing the committee's presentation.
"What information do they not have that they need? We will go over it thoroughly at the work session on Monday. Alderman Shull, to a point, can ask any question he wants to. If any alderman is not for it and is never going to be for it, then I respect that," Phillips said. "If we study it for another six months, another year, we're going to come up with the same results. We have said all we can say. We can't say any more.
"Short of going out on the street and bringing people in, I don't know what else we could do."
Shull said he would like to hear more about why the center has to be downtown and not at the East Tennessee State University campus at Allandale. Shull said the city should also consider the city's debt and other capital projects when discussing the higher education center.
"The proponents of this thing feel so strongly about it, they've internalized it. It's almost emotional, like asking someone about their religion," Shull said. "I think this has caused them to not understand, for other people it's not intuitive that this is a good thing."
Phillips has suggested the construction of the higher education center be paid for with a portion of the regional sales tax - a tax approved by referendum in the early 1990s to pay for the debt and operating subsidy for the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center and the Cattails Golf Course.
Samples said this course of action would be unfair to Kingsport taxpayers.
"It was sold to the people on the premise there was going to be a sunset clause in it, but they chose not to put one in it," Samples said. "That money should either be given back to the people or put in a trust fund until there is a referendum to let the people decide what they want to do."
Samples said he challenges the BMA to table the vote until after the election and to not pass any kind of funding stream (such as the regional sales tax) without a sunset clause.
"If this higher education center is so important, and I think it is, then I think the people are smart enough that they would vote for it. I don't think it should be rushed through and crammed down their throats," Samples said.