A significant regional educational project is inching closer to fruition.
During his State of the State Address Monday night, Gov. Bill Lee announced that $14.23 million in his budget proposal for the 2019-2020 fiscal year will benefit the proposed McMinn County Higher Education Center.
The center, formerly conceived as the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Business Innovation (CAMBI), is a project developing between Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) at Athens, Cleveland State Community College and University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Extension Office.
All total, the education center’s cost is estimated at $17.75 million, meaning a majority of funding would be covered from Lee’s administration.
Although the facility is expected to have multipurpose benefits, educationally, it will house Cleveland State Community College’s Athens campus and the local Agriculture Extension Office, as well as allow for the expansion of TCAT’s programs since some of its existing programs will be moved there. The building will be located in an industrial park in Athens across from DENSO Manufacturing.
TCAT Director Stewart Smith applauded “Gov. Lee for including the project in his budget and also focusing on technical education generally.”
Along with expanding Cleveland State’s campus, Smith explained that the extended TCAT campus will allow “more options to the community for technical education, hopefully to open two additional programs.”
Though the technical college is still planning, Smith revealed that “two in-demand programs” are heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and construction. According to Smith, these are the two most heavily discussed options among officials.
TCAT is “already in the design process,” Smith said, adding that project officials are hoping to begin building in the fall, pending legislative approval.
Smith noted that the project is about a year ahead of schedule since, prior to Lee’s announcement, the center had already secured a combined contribution of $3.5 million between City of Athens, McMinn County and the state — $2 million of which was allocated through former Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
Other entities Smith credited for helping the project become a priority included McMinn County Mayor John Gentry, State Sen. Mike Bell and State Rep. Mark Cochran.
The director also acknowledged McMinn County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Kathy Price who “worked very hard” to donate the property for the facility.
Looking at Tennessee as a whole, Stewart said the operation “should put us in a competitive nature against other states.”
According to Gentry, he believes the initiative will yield multifaceted benefits to local citizens and the community.
For one, the collaborative project is expected to increase workforce development.
“It’s awfully important having the governor support the project,” Gentry explained. He added that the project “aligns with his mission” to develop Tennessee’s workforce, since through his experience with his private company — “he knew firsthand the shortage of skilled labor.”
Moreover, the education center, offering increased industry training, will not only give citizens more opportunities, but is expected to improve the workforce and, in turn, the area’s economy, according to Gentry.
“This is a prosperous time in Tennessee, but anytime you can colocate education facilities — there is a shared savings that trickles down to every citizen,” Gentry said.
The mayor also noted that he believes the collaborative center is a model that eyes statewide will continue to examine for its efficiency.
“What a wonderful opportunity to partner with three academic institutions — Cleveland State, UT Ag, TCAT,” Gentry said. “It’s something that resonates with state leadership, which hopefully will be a model moving forward.”
Gentry added that the state and Tennessee Board of Regents “want to see collaboration and shared expenses because it is good for everyone.”
In addition to noting benefits he believes the project will have community-wide, the mayor specifically highlighted its projected impact on local education.
Calling it an “increased academic asset,” Gentry said, “hopefully this venture will strengthen Cleveland State by giving them an anchor.” He said he hopes “graduates matriculate to strengthen Tennessee Wesleyan” and also believes the center will strengthen TCAT’s educational outreach.
Furthermore, Gentry emphasized that collaboration between TCAT, Wesleyan and Cleveland State should be “strengthened for advanced training.”
The mayor reflected that the project has evolved from the “initial vision,” noting that it has “grown in purpose” as needs were discussed. Monitoring and maintaining community needs are essential, according to Gentry, because growing as a community is important.
For instance, he stated the current facilities housing the agriculture extension office and Cleveland State are “inadequate” for their needs.
In all, Gentry expressed his excitement about Lee’s proposal and that the center will give the community a “competitive” edge.
For paving the way, he specifically gave thanks to former State Rep. Dr. John Forgety, Bell, Haslam, McMinn County Commission and the county’s Economic Development Authority.
“This spans two governors — this commitment to growing local workforce,” Gentry said. “I can’t express enough appreciation for them.”
In light of the announcement, local representatives in the state legislature, Bell and Cochran, also expressed gratitude to Lee and noted the positive effects they believe the center will generate.
“This is a great opportunity for our region,” said Bell in a statement. “This project will be a shared services campus that will not only create educational training opportunities for local citizens, but will be a catalyst for bringing new jobs to our communities.”
Bell added, “We want to thank Gov. Lee for funding it in his budget. This is a call in action of years of work of dozens of people.”
“For many years, we have heard from local plant managers about the shortage of skilled labor and the importance of refocusing our attention on career and technical education,” Cochran said in a statement. “This center is evidence of what can be accomplished when state and local governments work in conjunction to respond to the needs of the private sector.”
Cochran added, “We couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities it will provide to our region and truly appreciate Gov. Lee including it in his budget.”