KINGSPORT — A delegation from the city of Kingsport and East Tennessee State University toured the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry earlier this week, an initial step in a long-term proposition to establish a dental school in downtown Kingsport.
Earlier this year, Mayor Dennis Phillips revealed Kingsport and ETSU officials had begun discussing the idea of UT placing a branch of its Memphis-based dental school in Kingsport and have ETSU oversee operations.
On Tuesday, Kingsport and ETSU officials flew to Memphis, met with UT officials and toured the university’s dental school, discussing the pros and cons of establishing a branch location in Kingsport and the estimated cost of the endeavor.
“I think we were well received. They listened and while they made no commitments, they are willing to look at it,” Phillips said. “In the past we’ve heard there is no way, but I was really flattered by their attitude and willingness to cooperate at this point.”
ETSU funded a feasibility study two years ago to determine if the need for a dental school existed and how much it would cost for the university to establish one in Johnson City. The study found that a dental school was needed for the region, but the cost of development would be “substantial” and require revenue from a variety of sources.
According to the feasibility study, the initial start-up and first-year operational costs of a dental school is in the $20 million range for a 40-student class with a facility construction cost of $78 million (dental school clinic and research facility).
In Kingsport’s presentation to UT officials on Tuesday, as of April 2011, Tennessee continues to be designated a “Health Professional Shortage Area” (HPSA) for dental care by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 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.
In the next couple of months, Phillips said he would like the UT officials to come to Northeast Tennessee and visit ETSU and Kingsport’s academic village.
“The message we tried to send is this is an opportunity for the two systems (UT and the Board of Regents) to work together and hopefully save a lot of money,” Phillips said. “We feel like this could set a precedent in the state of Tennessee.”
Kingsport and ETSU have not officially approached the state about funding, but Phillips said he intends to schedule a meeting with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and other Northeast Tennessee legislators to bring them up to date on the proposal. Ultimately, the school would require approval from not only UT and ETSU, but the Tennessee Board of Regents.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Phillips said. “And I feel somewhat optimistic. I realize it’s an uphill battle, but I think the time will never be better as far as the legislature is concerned and ETSU is concerned. We have a lot of right people in the right places and if this is ever going to happen, it’s going to happen now.”
Kingsport’s delegation included Phillips, Board of Education member Randy Montgomery (a graduate of UT’s dental school), Miles Burdine (president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce), Paul Montgomery (of Eastman Chemical Company) and Morris Baker (grant writer and education specialist for the city).
ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland and Dr. Wilsie Bishop, vice president for health affairs, also attended Tuesday’s meeting with Chancellor Dr. Steve Schwab and Dr. Tim Hottell, dean of the UT Health Science Center College of Dentistry.
Phillips said “through the generosity of Bank of Tennessee” the delegation flew to Memphis Tuesday morning on the bank’s private jet and returned to the Tri-Cities that afternoon.
UT’s College of Dentistry was founded in 1878 making it the oldest dental college in the South, and the third oldest public college of dentistry in the United States. The four-year dental program totals approximately 320 students, which includes students in postgraduate and dental hygiene programs.