KINGSPORT — An idea 20 years in the making came closer to becoming a reality Monday as city, business and educational leaders broke ground on the new Kingsport Center for Higher Education.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” said Mayor Dennis Phillips. “We have a history in Kingsport of talking things to death, never following through, and we have many projects over in the archives of the library.
“To see the ground broken for the higher education center is really amazing.”
More than 100 people attended Monday’s ceremony for the KCHE — city and chamber officials, state legislators, college and university representatives and people interested in the future of downtown all gathered to witness the official start of building a higher education center in downtown Kingsport.
“If you have the right people who have passion, you can really accomplish so much more than you ever dream of accomplishing,” said former Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier. “This is a very good day.”
The city of Kingsport plans to build a 54,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art higher education center at the corner of Clay and Market streets in the downtown area. The center will be able to accommodate approximately 800 students and will include a 220-seat auditorium, two 60-seat lecture halls, classrooms, a media center and physical science labs.
The facility will be the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified green higher education building in the state.
The $12.9 million project calls 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.
King College, Lincoln Memorial University, Carson-Newman, Tusculum and the University of Tennessee are on board, and Northeast State has had discussions with Milligan, which has expressed an interest in the venture.
Dr. Bill Locke, president of Northeast State, said the charter colleges and universities plan to offer more than 70 associate degrees, eight baccalaureate degrees, 10 masters degrees and one educational specialist program. Locke said all coursework required for the degrees would be available in the center.
“We are committed to making the project work,” Locke said.
Jeff Fleming, assistant city manager for development, said J.A. Street and Associates — the builders on the project — is mobilizing on Monday and activity should be seen onsite soon. Plans call for the KCHE to be open for the fall semester of 2009.
“We’ll see some activity in earnest immediately. It’s a tight construction schedule and you should see steel go up very quickly,” Fleming said.
Reasons given for building a higher education center in Kingsport include raising the educational attainment level of Kingsport’s citizens, producing qualified employees local business and industry say they need and acting as an economic stimulator for downtown Kingsport.
Keith Wilson, Kingsport Times-News publisher and one who has championed the project for years, issued a challenge to the local businesses and industries who have asked him how they could help during this process.
“We need you to invest in your employees. We need you to look at your budgets, your plans and the way you reward your people, and we want you to encourage your employees to finish their education and use this center to do so,” Wilson said. “The strategy was to make Kingsport ... a smart city, and we’re not going to be done until we accomplish that ... to raise the educational attainment level of our citizens.”
The idea of a higher education center in downtown Kingsport dates back nearly 20 years, as Blazier told the crowd in attendance on Monday. Blazier said the idea first came up in 1989 and 1990 during a visioning process, then again during the Model City Coalition project in the late 1990s and again in subsequent summits and Board of Mayor and Aldermen retreats.
In 2006 the BMA signed off on the project, and since then the city has moved forward with making the center a reality — purchasing the old Tire Center property to be the location and authorizing $11.27 million in bonds to fund the construction.
But something happened on the way to downtown. The project grew and now city leaders are envisioning an academic village in the Clay/Market/Clinchfield area of downtown Kingsport, which includes the KCHE, the Regional Center for Health Professions (which opens next month), the Regional Center for Applied Technology and the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (the groundbreaking is next month).
The BMA has authorized more than $1.15 million in downtown property purchases in connection to the academic village and future expansions of the RCHP and the KCHE. The properties include the old Tire Center building (the site of the KCHE), the Model City Motors building, the Carriage House, Jim’s Lawn Center, the Paul Adams building, the Firefighters Association building and the adjacent Peters building. The remaining property Kingsport is eyeing to purchase is Ward’s Feed Store.
“At this point we wanted to control the land to preserve the future opportunity for expansion,” Fleming said. “We do not plan any future public expenditures on higher education buildings. We wanted to have the land available to partner with an institution that wants to build its own facility in the future.
“We’re hopeful that one school becomes so successful they need their own building.”
Fleming said a parking structure would likely be done eventually for the academic village, but no timetable exists for such a project.