Pal Barger donates $400,000 for downtown automotive technology center

Matthew Lane • Jan 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Pal’s Sudden Service owner Pal Barger made a $400,000 investment in higher education in Kingsport on Wednesday — a move that will create an automotive educational facility in downtown Kingsport.

Barger has agreed to donate $400,000 to the Northeast State Technical Community College Foundation to purchase the Free Service Tire and Auto Center in downtown Kingsport. The building will be transformed into a facility to house the college’s automotive services program and be called the Pal Barger School of Automotive Technology.

The announcement came during a press conference Wednesday morning in the lobby of Free Service, where officials from the city, chamber of commerce and Northeast State came to thank Barger for his donation.

“Pal Barger is a visionary who continues to be a key resource for our city’s future,” said Mayor Dennis Phillips. “He understands the importance of a well-educated work force to the success of our region.

“Once again, Pal is showing the way, stepping up and making our region a better place to learn, live and work.”

The new facility will house Northeast State’s automotive services program and encompass all aspects of auto body training — estimating, building and reconstruction, repair and painting — anything associated with auto body and restoration, said college President Bill Locke.

“What the gift is, it enables a lot of young people who would be interested in an automotive career field. It gives a lot of young people the opportunity to have a better life,” Locke said.

Locke said the college is targeting to open the facility by August 2010 and have 100 to 200 students. Most of the facility will remain intact, but material and supplies and the cost of renovating the building to meet the college’s needs would cost $350,000 to $400,000.

Phillips explained the history behind the new facility, saying a local real estate agent approached City Manager John Campbell and asked him about purchasing the Free Service building because the owners were looking to relocate due to space needs.

“I thought this would be a great place to convince Bill Locke to bring an automotive school to,” Phillips said. “I had four meetings with people who I thought might have an interest in purchasing the building and donating it to the foundation.”

Phillips said he was in Budapest with Barger when Barger asked him about the building.

“I try not to approach every friend I have with my hand out, and I never asked Pal, but he heard about it. I told him, and he did not blink an eye. The next words out of his mouth were, ‘I’ll do that for you,’” Phillips said.

Lewis Wexler, one of the owners of Free Service, said the company — which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year — would be looking for a new home in Kingsport, noting the process has just started. Wexler said the company will be allowed to stay in its current location for the next year while it finds a new location.

Barger donated the former Skoby’s restaurant to Virginia Intermont College for a culinary training facility in 2004 and played a key role in the construction of a new athletic field house at Dobyns-Bennett High School. In 2007, VI axed its culinary program and put the restaurant on the market.

Over the past two years, the city of Kingsport has undergone an educational renaissance in its downtown. As higher education endeavors began to manifest in downtown, city leaders’ vision grew from just one or two buildings to what is now the Academic Village — a series of higher education facilities in the Clay/Market/Clinchfield area of downtown.

To date, the city has spent or earmarked more than $17 million toward construction and land acquisition for the Academic Village.

The School of Automotive Technology marks the fifth educational facility in the works for downtown Kingsport’s Academic Village — all of which will be operated by Northeast State. The Regional Center for Applied Technology (RCAT) was the first and opened in 2002.

Next came the Regional Center for Health Professions (RCHP), which opened last August and contains some 400 students. The Kingsport Center for Higher Education (KCHE) is under construction and is expected to open later this year.

In October, the city broke ground on the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) located on Clinchfield Street. The RCAM is a joint effort of Domtar, Eastman Chemical Co., Northeast State and the city of Kingsport to help ensure that local industries have the skilled work force they need for the future.

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