KINGSPORT - University of Tennessee President John Petersen has written a letter in support of Kingsport's proposed downtown higher education center.
"I guess it's build it and they will come," Mayor Dennis Phillips said Tuesday. "We asked them to be a part of the center and indicate if they have an interest to be part of the center to give us a letter stating they have an interest and are supportive."
The mayor and Kingsport Times-News Publisher Keith Wilson have spearheaded the proposed center, modeled after one in Greenville, S.C. Phillips said the letter is as close as UT will come to a formal commitment to the center - proposed to be about 50,000 square feet and cost $10 million - until and unless the city moves forward with the project.
"The Higher Education and Lifelong Learning Center to be built by the City of Kingsport and operated by Northeast (State) Technical Community College is intended to serve as a base for technical training and courses toward associate, baccalaureate and master's degrees offered by several colleges and universities," Petersen wrote in a letter dated Jan. 29. "UT enthusiastically endorses this project. I hope its success will inspire imitation throughout the state."
Petersen said the center fits in with a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Tennessee residents with a bachelor's degree. The current 21 percent puts the state as 44th nationally.
Phillips said the Board of Mayor and Aldermen will consider the project, including funding and likely locations, no later than its first meeting in March.
Phillips has said the best way to fund it is to use part of the quarter-cent sales tax revenue that helps pay for the MeadowView Conference, Resort and Convention Center. Part of that debt will be paid off come September, freeing up about $2.1 million a year.
On the other hand, the city's general fund is owed about $3 million for shortfalls over the years between the amount the tax generated and the debt payments.
The tax generates another $1 million a year, but the other MeadowView obligations won't be over until 2017. Alderman Pat Shull has spoken out against spending the sales tax revenue for the center, instead wanting it to go toward city debt retirement.
Potential sites include the Sullivan and Shelby streets parking lots, as well as one location each on Sullivan Street and the old Quebecor site.
Phillips said the city already has similar letters of support from officials of Bristol, Tenn.-based King College, Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate and Tusculum College near Greeneville. King also has a downtown location for Kingsport course offerings, as well as a joint nursing school venture in Kingsport with Wellmont Health System.
"I think the letter is a definite commitment that the University of Tennessee has the interest in participating in the higher ed center if and when it is located - and I think is when it is located - in Kingsport," Phillips said.
In addition, he said city officials have met with officials from Milligan College near Elizabethton, while Carson-Newman in Jefferson City has expressed interest and city officials have contacted officials from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville and Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va.
Notably absent from the list, however, is Johnson City-based East Tennessee State University. It operates and offers classes and some degree programs at the University Center near Allandale in the Hawkins County section of Kingsport.
"(ETSU President) Dr. (Paul) Stanton is supportive of the higher education center in Kingsport. ETSU has elected not to be a part at this time. I respect that decision," Phillips said.
But if ETSU later has an interest in participating in the center, Phillips said he is confident that would be allowed.
"That decision needs to be their (ETSU officials') decision," Phillips said.