KINGSPORT - The downtown allied health center and a scholarship fund for students who will study nursing there just got a million dollar bump from a local health system.
Wellmont Health System gave $1 million to Northeast State Technical Community College Tuesday afternoon, no strings attached.
However, the money marks a partnership to establish a new nursing school and is already earmarked to fund nursing scholarships and operate the new nursing program that starts this fall.
It marks the largest gift ever to Northeast State or the Northeast State Foundation and, in the words of college President Bill Locke, "cements the Wellmont-Northeast State nursing partnership."
Wellmont President and CEO Dr. Richard Salluzzo said Locke and Katie Yates, head of the Northeast State Foundation, "really drove this."
He also lauded Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for their support.
During the conference, Salluzzo drew laughter when he quipped that the deal almost fell through - because Foundation Chairman Keith Wilson repeatedly beat him in tennis matches, and Phillips on another issue once called him an imbecile.
"We really see our mission as supporting our community," said Salluzzo, who also is helping spearhead a national "safest hospital" initiative. "You can't have safety in health care if you don't have nurses."
After a news conference and ceremonial passing of an oversized check from Salluzzo to Yates, Locke estimated about $750,000 would endow a scholarship fund for a new two-year registered nursing degree.
He said the rest would go toward start-up and operational costs at the center, set to open in the fall of 2008.
"Guess who stepped up first to do this?" Locke said. "Dr. Salluzzo and the board of directors of Wellmont Health System."
Wilson, who is also publisher of the Kingsport Times-News, told the more than 60 people attending the news conference that the BMA, Locke and Salluzzo deserve credit and praise for their effort to bolster nursing education and downtown.
"Dr. Salluzzo stepped up before he was ever asked to offer to support this college and support this region," Wilson said. "(But) we're not done yet. The foundation has a tremendous amount yet to do."
The BMA has agreed to fund up to $4 million for the allied health center and an estimated $10 million to $12 million for a higher education center downtown.
Northeast State will admit 30 nursing students into its first class beginning in August and 60 more in 2008. Program graduates are eligible to test for registered nursing licensure.
The new program comes as the number of hospital-based, two-year registered nursing programs in the United States has declined in recent years, to 73 in the latest reported figures, school officials said.
Locke plans to move medical programs offered in Elizabethton, Gray and Blountville to downtown Kingsport by next fall. Locke has said he intends to relocate the college's eight medical programs, including registered nurse and licensed practical nurse programs, to the new 40,000-square-foot allied health facility to serve an estimated 400 students.
Locke said things have moved quickly after Northeast State got permission about three months ago to offer the associate's degree in nursing, starting this fall, at the school's Gray campus.
The BMA earlier this month approved funding for the allied health center downtown, to be built in conjunction with the already approved higher education center downtown.
"Whenever and wherever our health system is needed, we'll be there," said Lee Shillito, president of the Wellmont board.
He said the downtown center will allow students from the region to attend school close to home, receive an in-demand degree, and allow students to get experience and post-graduation jobs at Holston Valley Medical Center and Bristol Regional Medical Center, both part of Wellmont.
Salluzzo said students can earn the two-year nursing degree and stop there or continue to work toward a bachelor's degree at East Tennessee State University, King College or Milligan College.
"It's the best of both worlds - for students and for health care," Salluzzo said.