Tennessee State Rep. Dan Howell remembers visiting the abandoned American Uniform factory in downtown Cleveland when it was just a shell of a building with broken windows and widespread asbestos problems.
While many saw the abandoned two-story mill as an eyesore, Bradley County Schools Superintendent Linda Cash envisioned the former factory as a potential site for a new type of business and education collaborative similar to what she had seen work elsewhere.
"When Dr. Cash initially suggested the idea, I asked if she was really serious," Howell recalled Thursday during a tour of the now renovated structure. "But to see this facility now is tremendous and a tribute to the vision and networking that Dr. Cash has provided for this project."
After seven years of planning, fundraising and construction, the renovated factory now known as the Bradley County Partnerships in Industry and Education (PIE) Innovation Center hosted the biggest gathering of manufacturing and political leaders ever in Cleveland on Thursday. By mid October, more than 150 high school students will be coming to the PIE center for half of their school day each day to be trained and work in a variety of technical and medical careers in programs designed by local industry leaders.
"Once we are built out, we should have about 600 students training here, in addition to all of the work-based learning at the Smart Factory Institute here and the other business facilities," Cash said. "This combines education and industry and allows our business partners to bring their resources and their training needs into the school environment. We save on all of the expense of having the equipment here at a centralized site, and businesses are able to help develop our programs in ways that reflect real-world job needs. Everything is here, and we're feeding the students directly to local businesses."
(READ MORE: Smart Factory Institute moving to Cleveland, Tenn.)
It's a model Cash said she saw work effectively in Carrollton, Georgia. She has worked for years to establish an even bigger campus in Bradley County, which is also working with the neighboring Meigs and Polk County school systems in a variety of programs, including dual-enrollment courses from Cleveland State Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) campus in Athens, Tennessee.
"This is going to be transformational for our city," Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks said during a tour of the ongoing work at the PIE center. "This is going to change the next generation of our workforce, not just in Cleveland but also in this entire region."
Although the Cleveland city schools system has its own vocational training program and is not involved in the PIE Innovation Center, Brooks said he hopes to also bring the city schools into the program in the future.
"Hopefully now, in the next generation of new leadership and new thinking here in Cleveland, we're going to get even more involved," Brooks said. "I'm going to lead the charge, and I think the best is yet to come."
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said the facility "will be a hub for training and retraining" to help Tennessee's growing manufacturing industries.
"Tennesseans want to go to work, and this center will help them to do that," she said.
Jeff McCord, Tennessee's commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, said the PIE center will provide hands-on instruction and work opportunities for students to start their careers.
"We disparaged technical careers for too long, and we need facilities like this to address our skills gap," McCord said.
The $33 million complex has gained the support of nearly a dozen local businesses and foundations along with the local school system and a variety of government agencies to create classrooms, laboratories and garages for training both youth and adult workers in everything from diesel mechanics and mechatronics to nursing and logistics.
The PIE center also will house Tennessee's first Smart Factory Institute, a public and private partnership created to help manufacturers and other businesses bring new technologies and work skills to their businesses to more effectively compete in the evolving marketplace.. Mary Beth Hudson, the executive director of the Smart Factory Institute, said the institute plans to use about 8,900 square feet in the 264,000-square-foot PIE center to offer classroom and training facilities for both in-person and remote courses, events and seminars for existing industry across the Southeast.
"We hope to be built out by the end of September," Hudson said. "This is a central location that has brought together key players and businesses to achieve success.
The former American Uniform Co. mill operated for nearly 60 years before it shut down in 2006 and is being rebuilt to accommodate at least 38 business locations and several nonprofit groups, in addition to the high school and adult training programs. There will be space to house business apprenticeship programs, the local University of Tennessee Extension Service and even local stores and restaurants where students can work close to where they go to school. The center also houses a counseling center to help students with mental challenges and other wraparound services.
"We want to make sure that all students are set up for success," said Brittany Cannon, the director of the new PIE center.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @dflessner1