KINGSPORT - Bill Locke, president of Northeast State Technical Community College, spent more than an hour Monday night answering dozens of questions about the proposed higher education center in an attempt to resolve any concerns and secure additional support for the project.
For nearly three years a committee of educators, employers and community leaders has worked on a proposal to bring a $12 million, 50,000-square-foot higher education center to downtown Kingsport.
The Board of Mayor and Aldermen is expected to vote tonight to approve the concept for a higher education center and budget up to $2.5 million for land acquisition, and architectural and engineering services. City Manager John Campbell said he is not asking for these funds to come from the regional sales tax.
Last week, the committee made its first major presentation to the BMA and the public about the proposal. Further details were released during a 3Â½-hour work session Monday night.
"This center could be the hub of the city for all kinds of things," Locke said. "Your only limitation is your imagination."
The proposal calls for NSTCC to operate the facility and offer the first two years of core courses along with associate degrees in science, arts and applied science. Participating universities and colleges would then offer their bachelor's and master's programs, and degrees would be in the name of the university offering the program.
Locke said some of the curriculum would be driven by the needs of local businesses and industries, and Eastman Chemical Co. has agreed to offer lab space for the proposed engineering courses at the center.
The University of Tennessee, King College, Tusculum College, Lincoln Memorial University and the Tennessee Board of Regents have all pledged their support for the center.
The proposal has the support of a majority of the BMA. However, tonight's vote might not be a unanimous one.
Alderman Ken Marsh said the public needs "soak time" on the issue, adding that the perception among the public is the issue is being railroaded through.
"Perception is truth to our citizens, and the higher education center ... they see is being rushed forward. People need some soak time to absorb this," Marsh said. "Is higher education the highest priority? Six months ago the highest priority was building a new school."
This weekend, Alderman Pat Shull said Mayor Dennis Phillips has rushed the issue, and the BMA should wait two weeks before voting in order for the public to take in all the information.
"I firmly believe that we the board have put the cart before the horse," Shull said. "I would like to give the citizens a chance to absorb this."
Phillips said "nothing could be further from the truth" about him rushing the issue. Phillips said 75 people worked on the proposal for nearly three years.
"What's two more weeks going to do other than just let these people who have worked for it go home and it's another thing Kingsport can put in the library archives," Phillips said. "It won't happen if we don't vote on it now."
One of the major hang-ups about the project - for Marsh and Shull - is the effect it would have on the city's debt. Campbell has said the project could be financed without an increase to the property tax rate and within the BMA-imposed debt limit.
"We could do all of these projects without increasing property taxes. Debt is the way to do public projects because the beneficiaries pay for it," said Vice Mayor Larry Munsey. "I don't think we need to manage the city thinking the world is going to come to an end."
Another concern for Marsh and Shull is Phillips' proposal to earmark a portion of the regional sales tax to fund the construction of the center. Marsh said it would be unethical for the BMA to switch this money to another project without the voters' agreement.
Campbell said this method of funding is not included in tonight's resolution.
The two men would also like to see the BMA prioritize all of the city's capital projects and not de-link the higher education center from that list.
"We can't sit here and dot every I and cross every T. We can move out of here conceptually moving forward," Alderman Ken Maness said.
Alderman Valerie Joh agreed the BMA needs to vote on the proposal.
"Other cities have done more than this and done the right thing and grown," she said. "If we shelve it, it's never going to happen."
Times-News Publisher Keith Wilson, a proponent of the project, said two questions that keep coming up are why not use the East Tennessee State University Center at Allandale and why downtown. For about a year the committee worked on a plan for the city to sell the Allandale center and use the proceeds to build the higher education center.
"After a year of discussion, ETSU decided not to participate at this time, even though they are supportive of the project," Wilson said.
As for downtown, Wilson said downtown revitalization has been a major issue of the BMA for years.
"This was a very good way to take two projects and roll them into one," he said. "This isn't magic, just a lot of work. It could have been done 20 years ago, and they didn't do it. Now is the time to go forward."
During the public comment section of the meeting, only one person spoke against the higher education center.
Richard Samples, who is running for alderman in the May city election, called on Phillips to delay taking action until after the election.
"You need to wait and let the new board make this decision," he said.
However, another candidate for alderman spoke in favor of the higher education center.
"This is an investment in the future, and it needs to happen soon," said Jantry Shupe.