Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee weighs state funding for $17.75 million proposed McMinn County Higher Ed Center

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office in War Memorial Auditorium Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - A proposed $17.75 million McMinn County project that would co-locate the state's Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens with Cleveland State's Athens operations as well as the University of Tennessee's UT Extension services in a new 51,500-square-foot building has the attention of Gov. Bill Lee.

Known as the McMinn Higher Education Center, the building project is No. 2 on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's list of recommended list of capital projects for the state's upcoming 2019-2020 budget.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings on Wednesday cited the project, which McMinn County and Athens officials as well as businesses and local state lawmakers have been pushing.

The proposed joint facility is located on property in an Athens industrial park, which McMinn County has donated, Tydings said. The purpose is to create a single location for local industry training to upgrade the existing workforce.

Across the street from the property is a Denso Manufacturing auto parts plant, where the company employs more than 1,000 workers. Resolute and E&E Manufacturing are also supporters of the project.

State government's cost would be $14.23 million with about $3.4 million coming from other sources.

"It certainly is one of a number of proposals that align with the things that I think are important in education and that is vocational and technical education, the alignment with industry and the education system partnering," said Lee after wrapping up his last day of public budget hearings with state agencies.

"I'm really interested in that project," he added. "We'll see whether it falls in the scope of funding."

Also during the budget hearings, Tydings, UT system interim President Randy Boyd and the heads of the state's other universities said they will hold tuition increases next fall to 2.5 percent or less if they receive recommended state funding.

Tydings, a former Chattanooga State president, said the McMinn County project will "expand the offerings that Athens TCAT will be able to do in McMinn County and actually take Cleveland State out of a shopping center that they've been operating under and put them in this facility."

An Adult Education GED program is also part of the mix "so we will have all that together," Tydings said. "It's located in the industrial park so it's right there for companies to be able to send individuals to. It will really help us expand what is happening in that part of the state."

The state's cost would be $14.23 million with about $3.5 million coming from other sources.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, a Senate Education Committee member, said he's "excited about the possibility that we may get this industrial industrial training center funded in McMinn County. We've been working on this for a number of years."

Bell said he's spoken about the proposal with Lee "directly about this project."

"We've got a lot of buy in from the city of Athens, the county, local industry, THEC, the UT Extension Office, which focuses on agricultural programs and issues, and from the local industrial board," Bell said. "I just think this is a great project and I believe this is the year we may very well get this project funded."

The county has provided the land. Local officials have an Appalachian Regional Commission grant as well as commitments of money from Athens and McMinn County officials on providing the local share.

"Again, this is going to be multipurpose," Bell said. "We're throwing away $150,000 a year right now to rent an old strip mall" for Cleveland State's McMinn County presence.

TCAT Athens enrollment could grow from from 466 to 500. Cleveland State's headcount in McMinn County would soar from 457 to 750.

Programs currently planned include machine tool technology, mechanical maintenance, electrical and instrumentation, general education (academics), administrative professional, agriculture technology, climate control, early childhood education, emergency medical technician and business.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said combining various education functions in one building has been done in Kingsport and he would like to see Athens join what he hopes is a trend of co-locating different higher education entities in a single building in rural areas of the state.

Krause said "our dream" is to get students with TCAT credentials that they can immediately or later transfer to community colleges.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.