Tennessee Temple eyes move, new partner: Woodland Park Baptist Church in Tyner

photo Tennessee Temple University

Tennessee Temple University, a four-year Christian college begun in 1946 by then-neighboring Highland Park Baptist Church, has entered into exploratory discussions about the development of a new campus at Woodland Park Baptist Church in Tyner.

The school, which is landlocked within 21 acres in Highland Park, potentially would relocate to the 170-acre church site on Standifer Gap Road.

"The potential for an expanded campus together with a [common mission with Woodland Park] has sparked this conversation," said Dr. Steve Echols, president of Tennessee Temple since January 2012.

If such a move appears viable in the coming months, a nonbinding memorandum of understanding between the two institutions likely would be written, officials said.

Dr. Wayne Barber, senior pastor of Woodland Park, said he believes an initial partnership might involve the church and the school sharing space in the manner that Johnson Ferry Baptist Church and New Orleans Theological Seminary do in Marietta, Ga.

"It depends on what they're able to do by the time they shifted gears," he said.

Barber said the church has discussed for years how it might partner with any number of higher education entities. After he returned as pastor in 2011 -- he also was pastor 1981-1999 -- Tennessee Temple even came up in discussions.

"The burden was there [for a partnership]," he said. "The timing was off. It was always our [desire to ask] how God could use this land for the work of the Lord."

Echols said a move would be promising.

"It could be a great partnership," he said.

The school has been without a partnering church since Highland Park Baptist, now Church of the Highlands, moved to Harrison in January.

Tennessee Temple grew to around 4,000 students by around 1980, decreased to about 650 students by 1992 and dwindled more slowly over the next 15 years.

The fallout was "catastrophic," Echols said, but a return to the 1980-level enrollment on the present campus, where students once crowded into nearby houses for lodging, is not likely to return.

"That day has come and gone," he said.

However, the school has experienced a 47 percent increase in resident enrollment since 2011, Echols said. Its fall residential enrollment is 417, according to numbers on the front page of the school's website.

Indeed, he said, including online students and expected new residential students in the spring, Tennessee Temple is on target to have a cumulative enrollment of more than 1,000 students during the 2013-14 academic year.

Echols also said the school "finished in the black" on each of its last three annual audit reports.

"That is a stability that many schools would be grateful to have," he said. "Obviously, newer buildings with less overhead would be an important financial benefit for any school to consider, but the opportunity for future growth must be the primary consideration.

Since nothing has been agreed to or signed with Woodland Park, Tennessee Temple University has not entertained any formal offers to sell its buildings inside its 21-acre campus. But university properties outside the campus have been and are listed for sale.

Echols said buyers have been interested in campus land since he became president last year and as far back as the day of founding president Dr. Lee Roberson, who was president from 1946 to 1984.

"Have people contacted us? Sure," he said. "Everything between here and the moon has been discussed. It's a piece of property in an urban area that a lot of people are interested in. We're going to take it step by step."

Robert Fisher, director of commercial real estate for Keller Williams Realty and not involved with any potential sale of Tennessee Temple property, said 21 acres on the edge of downtown would offer -- either together or divided into 10- and 5-acre parcels -- a variety of possibilities.

If parcels are kept as is, he said, another school or ministry would afford the easiest transition.

If the price is right and some demolition is possible, Fisher said, the area would be ripe for a higher-end, multifamily development. The area is even close enough to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he said, that the development could include nicer student housing.

Other options, he said, might be a corporate campus for someone "looking to get out of a downtown skyscraper" or a large new employer in town. Single-family housing, he said, is probably not a likelihood because of the price that would be paid for the property.

Barber said if a memorandum of understanding between Tennessee Temple and Woodland Park is written, a timetable would be a likely follow-up.

"This is something we've received from God," he said .

Echols said the dynamics for Tennessee Temple have changed.

"We're to the point of an opportunity that looks better than anything the school has had in a long, long time, [something] that would allow for future growth."

Contact Clint Cooper at [email protected] or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.