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Kingsport, UT, ETSU exploring putting dental school downtown

Matthew Lane • May 10, 2013 at 11:49 PM

KINGSPORT — Early discussions about establishing a dental school in the downtown area are taking place between the city of Kingsport, East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee.

Mayor Dennis Phillips, who has been involved in the discussions, said the idea is just in the preliminary stage.

“(ETSU President) Dr. Brian Nolan and I were talking one day about education in Kingsport, bouncing around things that could be possible in Kingsport, and one of the things we talked about was a dental school,” Phillips said.

The idea behind a dental school in the Tri-Cities region is not a new one, and in fact, ETSU funded a feasibility study two years ago to determine if the need existed and how much it would cost for the university to establish a dental school in Johnson City.

Over two years ago, ETSU charged a committee of faculty and local dentists to explore the idea, then in July 2011 Tripp Umbach — a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm — came on board to conduct a feasibility study and economic impact analysis on a proposed dental school along with a recommendation.

In its report, Tripp Umbach said a dental school is needed for the region and found ETSU has the opportunity to build one, but that the cost of development would be “substantial” and require revenue from a variety of sources.

For a 40-student class, the study estimates $20 million for initial start-up and first-year operations with a facility construction cost of $78 million (dental school clinic and research facility).

Phillips said the idea would be for UT to place a branch of its Memphis-based dental school in Kingsport and have ETSU oversee operations. The closest dental school in Tennessee is the UT one in Memphis; outside the state the closest dental school is at UNC-Chapel Hill, more than 200 miles away.

“(UT) certainly has not said yes, but they have not said no either. My excitement is the two systems are willing to at least explore the possibility and if they can work together, then it would certainly be a plus for East Tennessee,” Phillips said. “But we’re just in the preliminary stages and you keep going until someone says absolutely no way, and I don’t see that happening in the near future.”

Phillips did say he has concerns about state funding, that only so much exists and whether the parties involved could find a way to make the idea happen without UT’s dental school in Memphis being affected.

The time frame for the project is likely a five-year project with the next step being for ETSU to set up a meeting with Kingsport and UT officials, either in the Tri-Cities or in Knoxville.

Kingsport has made significant strides in higher education over the past five years, mainly the establishment of an academic village, composed of five higher education facilities in the heart of downtown.

Nearly 2,200 students take courses in more than 20 programs including nursing, computer technology, business administration, education, manufacturing and automotive. Colleges and universities having a presence in downtown Kingsport include Northeast State Community College, the University of Tennessee, LMU, King College and recently Tusculum and Milligan colleges.

In addition, ETSU has begun offering more than 60 courses in the Regional Center for Advanced Technology with plans to establish a permanent presence in the Press Commons Shopping Center this fall.

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