Construction career center takes shape in Avondale in effort to build Chattanooga's future

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / From left, state representative Esther Helton, Chattanooga State Community College President Dr. Rebecca Ashford, Governor Bill Lee, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Nakia Towns, City of Chattanooga's Senior Advisor for Economic Opportunity & Interim Administrator Jermaine Freeman, Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Economic Development Charles Wood and AGC East Tennessee Chair Nic Cornelison break ground for the Construction Career Center, which will be located in the former Mary Ann Garber Elementary School in East Chattanooga.

Within the next 10 months, an abandoned elementary school in Avondale should be retrofitted to help train needed construction workers to build Chattanooga's future.

State and local officials Tuesday broke ground on an $8 million project to refurbish and equip the former Mary Garber elementary school on Roanoke Avenue in East Chattanooga into a Construction Career Center to train building trade workers. The construction vocational school is targeted for high school juniors and seniors as the newest campus for the Tennessee College of Applied Technology and will also provide adult education for those beyond high school age.

"On so many levels, this is a good project," Gov. Bill Lee said during Tuesday's groundbreaking for the new school. "It will give opportunity for Chattanoogans, both young and adult learners, to attain a skill and to go directly into the construction industry which is something that we desperately need."

Lee, a master plumber and construction company owner in Williamson County who ran his own apprenticeship program to train over 1,000 construction workers, campaigned for governor two years ago on a platform that promised to build more such vocational and trade schools to offer non-degree programs for in-demand professions like construction.

The Chattanooga Construction Career Center has been under development since early 2019 and is jointly funded by the state of Tennessee, the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County government and local foundations and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of East Tennessee.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the public/private partnership behind the new training center underscores the widespread recognition of the need for such a facility and should help ensure that the training is focused on real-life needs in the construction industry. Coppinger personally lobbied Gov. Lee to provide the state's $2 million share of the project, which was matched equally by the city, county and private donors.

"This is s great collaborative effort that started almost three years ago, and although we had a little bit of a pause because of the Covid pandemic, the reality is that in August of 2022 this training facility will be open," Coppinger said. "This is something that our city and county have wanted for a long, long time and we've developed a great partnership with the Associated General Contractors who have a huge need for the talent this school will provide."

Hamilton County schools donated the vacant 28,000-square-foot Mary Garber school, which was built in 1954 and closed in 2002.

The school offers many more classrooms and far more acreage for development than the original construction trades complex envisioned by leaders of the AGC of East Tennessee. Leslie Gower, CEO of AGC of East Tennessee, said the builders originally considered opening a 5,000-square-foot training center adjacent to their downtown office.

"We shared our concept of a construction career center with our county school system and, as it turns out, they were considering opening a new vocational school but wanted an industry partner to make it work," Gower said. "At the same time we approached Chattanooga State Community College and TCAT, and they were in the process of launching a new construction certification program."

Ultimately, the parties joined together to form a nonprofit to fund and operate the Construction Career Center with an AGC career and industry center, a high school vocational training program for construction and TCAT construction training for adults, all under one roof.

"Mayor Coppinger saw the power in an industry-led workforce initiative and the importance of AGC leading the effort to drive curriculum and bring employers closer to students," Gower said.

Nancy Patterson, vice president of college advancement and public relations at Chattanooga State, said the new construction center will train students for carpentry, masonry, plumbing, HVAC, and electrical jobs.

"They will know how to work with a construction crew, from reading blueprints to erecting structures to finishing a construction project," she said.. "Working with our AGC partners, these students may have the opportunity to work as interns on actual job sites that will reinforce their skills developed through hands-on training."

The site is adjacent to the $61 million Nippon paint plant under construction and will include a couple of acres for future expansion.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340