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Kingsport putting higher education within reach of its residents

Matthew Lane • Nov 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

The Regional Center for Applied Technology provides higher education and work force development opportunities for Tri-Cities area residents. File photo.


Second in a series

When people in the Tri-Cities think about higher education, places such as East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee probably come to mind. Now, through some behind-the-scenes work of local leaders and educators, higher education has become a reality for the Model City.

City leaders have undertaken the first steps in creating an academic village in downtown Kingsport. Conceptual drawings show two main facilities on Clay Street, three potential expansion buildings surrounding a closed Market Street and Clinchfield, along with an adjacent parking garage.

Kingsport has purchased four buildings this year in connection with the project:

•The old Tire Center building for $165,000 (the site of the higher education center).

•The Model City Motors building for $156,000 (which could be used as an expansion or extension of the Regional Center for Applied Technology).

•Jim’s Lawn Center building for $265,000 and the Paul Adams building for $359,000. These two buildings will likely be razed and used for parking.

Other properties discussed include Ward’s Feed Store, Carriage House, A-Hood Bonding and the Fire Fighters Association building.

“I think government is in the business of higher education,” said Mayor Dennis Phillips. “We have to provide the employees our employers are demanding.”

As it stands now, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has approved the construction of two buildings:

• A 50,000-square-foot higher education center to be built at the corner of Clay and Market on the site of the old Tire Center building.

• A 42,000-square-foot allied health building to be built on the site of city-owned public parking at the corner of Clay and Clinchfield.

Construction on the $4 million allied health building began last month with an opening date of fall 2008. City leaders are planning to have the $12 million higher education center open by the fall of 2009.

“Without question, Kingsport needs higher education. When you look at it now, we’re sitting at 23 percent college educated, and the national average is 29 percent,” City Manager John Campbell said. “You can talk all you want and be the greatest sales people in the world, but if you don’t have the people to fill the knowledge-based jobs, you’re not going to get knowledge-based businesses, which means you’re not going to get the best jobs now or in the future.

“To ensure you have the best jobs available, you have to have a well-educated work force. To not have an educated work force sets you up for some sort of failure in the next five, 10 or 20 years down the road.”

The proposed higher education 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.

Plans call 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, with degrees being in the name of the university offering the program.

Bill Locke, president of NSTCC, said King College, Lincoln Memorial University and UT are onboard for when the facility opens next year, and the college has had discussions with Carson-Newman, Milligan, Emory and Henry, and Tusculum, but nothing has been finalized.

“It’s amazing to me the leadership, what’s happened and taken place, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the efforts,” Locke said. “A lot of it, (the BMA) realizes that it takes an educated populace if you’re going to increase and maintain the standard of living you have, and I think what’s behind all of it.

“Nothing is free, and I think they understand the expenditures are worth the cost.”

Last month the city broke ground on the allied health facility — an 11th-hour project that emerged about six months ago when Locke came before the BMA offering to relocate all eight of NSTCC’s medical programs currently being offered in Elizabethton, Gray and Blountville, including nursing and an LPN program — to a downtown facility.

Patrick Kane, vice president of marketing and communications at Wellmont Health System, told those gathered at the groundbreaking the facility would help Kingsport grow its own nurses and health care professionals.

Locke has said 400 students would be in the allied health facility when it opens next year and that an estimated 2,100 students would attend both facilities. Currently about 1,000 attend the nearby Regional Center for Applied Technology.

“We have plenty of people who are seeking jobs and plenty of companies that have those jobs, but the people seeking the jobs don’t have the skills and education necessary to get those jobs,” said Miles Burdine, president of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. “It’s incumbent upon us to provide the opportunity for those people to get the education. Soon they will be able to do that.”

Although most of the power players in the Model City support a higher education center, some aren’t completely sold on the idea of an academic village. They say Kingsport should not be buying up all of downtown and for the time being should just stick with the two main buildings.

“If we get out of that reasonable footprint and it is expanded into an academic village, I’m not for that,” said Alderman Pat Shull, who did vote for the two main buildings. “While our goals are admirable in providing educational opportunities for our own folks in Kingsport, we’ve got to balance that with our mission of maintaining good public schools.”

Still, most city leaders are supportive of an academic village concept and are hearing similar sentiments from people in the community.

“I’m very supportive of the concept. I think downtown will really prosper and grow with the this academic village concept,” said Robin Dice, director of the RCAT. “Just the idea of having numerous colleges from which to choose from, students who want to be engineers, medical professions ... to have those choices is growth in itself.”

While the higher education center and allied health facility have been grabbing most of the headlines in recent months, other educational opportunities also exist in downtown Kingsport.

ETSU has been offering two arts courses in downtown Kingsport — 2-D Design and Bluegrass — since August, with plans to bring additional arts courses next spring. Ultimately, the Downtown Kingsport Association envisions an arts village in downtown — space in multiple buildings where people can take art courses, rent studio space and perform their trade on the streets.

King College has more than 200 nursing students in a bachelor’s degree nursing program and a master’s degree nursing program, part on Main Street and part at Holston Valley Medical Center in conjunction with Wellmont.

And before that, two tangible outcomes from a 1999 economic summit were the Kingsport-Sullivan County Educate and Grow Scholarship program and the RCAT, located in downtown Kingsport.

Started in 2001, the Educate and Grow program allows qualified graduates from Sullivan County’s high schools — Central, Dobyns-Bennett, East, North and South — the chance to attend college tuition-free at Northeast State for two years. The program has since been extended to Unicoi, Carter, Johnson and Washington counties, and Gov. Phil Bredesen recently announced a similar statewide initiative.

This past fall more than 140 students in the Tri-Cities took advantage of the program.

“Students who attend Kingsport City Schools and Sullivan County Schools, it gives students who wouldn’t have otherwise afforded to go to school, it gives them an opportunity to go to school,” said Erin Blevins, head of Institutional Advancement with NSTCC.

Five years ago, the RCAT opened its doors to just over 300 students. Today, the facility serves three times that number, and plans call for a possible expansion of the center.

“We are full at this point,” Dice said.

Operated by Northeast State, the RCAT provides higher education and work force development opportunities for Tri-Cities area residents including business and industry employees, traditional and non-traditional students, high school students through dual-enrollment programs, and senior citizens.

Located with the city’s transit hubs on the corner of Clay and Main streets, the high-tech training center is also purposely situated within a stone’s throw of a child-care center that reserves spots for RCAT students.

Dice said the largest number of students at the RCAT are in the 18- to 20-year-old range; second are students 25 to 34 years old; while 21- to 24-year-olds (typically junior and senior age college students) are fourth in the ranking.

“Those 18 to 20, when they finish two years with us, they’re going somewhere else for their four-year degree. You get the Kingsport higher education center onboard downtown, I’m hoping that those students will stay in Kingsport,” Dice said. “They’re going to choose one of those four-year universities, so hopefully we can retain them in Kingsport because our baby boomers are retiring, and we need our young folks here.”

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