Gov. Lee budget proposes funding new UTC Health Science Building, other projects

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / This building at 540 McCallie Ave., seen Sunday, began as the Interstate Life Insurance Building. Gov. Bill Lee's budget proposal calls for providing $40 million to renovate a massive 47,269-square foot, seven-story former state office building on McCallie Avenue now owned by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee's proposed 2023 budget would provide an estimated $110 million for three long-sought building and renovation projects on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus.

Among them is an estimated $60.8 million previously proposed Health Science Building for the university's School of Nursing. UTC officials anticipate the new 92,192-square-foot building will allow the nursing program's enrollment to grow by 60%.

Lee is recommending lawmakers approve $55.93 million for the building while the remaining $4.84 million would come from university sources and/or donor gifts.

The second project is a $40 million renovation of the seven-story, 174,000 square-foot former Interstate Life Insurance Building at 540 McCallie Ave., a 1950s era Art Moderne-style structure that later became a state office building before it was ceded to UTC.

A third UTC project included in the Republican governor's $52.6 billion budget provides $10.2 million in upgrades to Brock Hall at 623 Vine St. Plans call for replacing building systems, including heating, air conditioning and lighting, as well as upgrading restrooms while also addressing Americans With Disabilities Act issues along with repairs to the building's outside, including masonry and roofing.

All are among scores of capital projects for which the governor is proposing funding statewide in areas ranging from higher education to state parks and National Guard armories.

The total statewide price tag: $2.7 billion. It comes with state government continuing to roll in record tax surpluses even as federal stimulus funds sweep through Tennessee and other states.

"We have the financial capacity to innovate and approach key areas like education and infrastructure," Lee told state lawmakers Monday night while unveiling his proposed $52.6 billion budget.

University officials have long sought a new nursing building to expand the nursing program and train more nurses for what officials say is a medically underserved Chattanooga and region.

The project also fits with Chattanooga's effort to work with academia and the health care industry through its Third and Fourth streets "medical corridor." It's an effort to link downtown-headquartered BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee with UTC as well as Erlanger Health Services, Siskin Children's Institute, CHI Memorial and Parkridge Medical Center along with physicians' offices.

In 2017, the State Building Commission gave the university authority to hire a consultant and begin planning. The proposed site is at the intersection of East Third and Palmetto streets.

"UTC hasn't had a new building in a long time," said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a project booster, in a phone interview Friday.

Gardenhire noted that, among other things, the project gives the university an opportunity to boost its nursing program amid rising demand for hospital nurses as a number of veteran nurses seek less stressful work during the coronavirus.

In a Friday phone interview, UTC Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Tyler Forrest said it's an exciting project in the heart of the medical corridor.

"We're deeming it the Health Science Building right now. It'll be home to the UTC School of Nursing," Forrest said. "What's so exciting about this project is getting into nursing school is very competitive. This will allow UTC to expand the nursing program by 60%. So it's a huge win not only for the university but what we hope also for the Chattanooga community as well as the whole region for being able to provide more nurses in what we know is an underserved area right now. I don't want that to be lost."

UTC says Chattanooga is now a medically underserved community, with need for an increase of 26.5% health care practitioners by 2024. According to the one-page summary of the proposal, the School of Nursing accepts 50% of its applicants but is "turning down very smart and eligible students, due to space and cohort limitations."

The project calls for the installation of classes designed for active learning enhanced by technology for coursework that emphasizes problem-solving.

If lawmakers approve the project, Forrest said UTC would be able to begin moving move forward with planning on July 1.

"We are very thankful for Gov. Lee's support as well as the Hamilton County legislative delegation and [UT system President] Randy Boyd, who worked hard to keep this project moving," Forrest said.

The $40 million in funding for upgrades to the 504 McCallie Ave. building comes after years of discussion. Former Gov. Bill Haslam's administration decided the building, which had fallen into disrepair, wasn't worth fixing or keeping, basing its conclusions on a study of state office buildings by real estate services giant Jones Lang LaSalle. But preservationists and others rallied in favor of the structure, which the state later gave to UTC.

Forrest said UTC over the past several years has had several capital projects to get the building in better working order and has added classrooms and offices while also using it for "surge" needs for the College of Health Education and Professional Studies with Hunter Hall being renovated.

"It's been a wonderful facility," Forrest said, noting it is now in "much better shape" and adding that's why UTC is interested in doing more with it.

Pending approval by lawmakers of the new funds, Forrest said renovation will either enhance existing or add new classroom spaces, active learning spaces and technology hubs. The exterior building envelope will be updated as well as the building systems. Radio station WUTC and the Division of Information Technology will also be housed in the building in space the university has almost completed renovating.

"I think it's a very good thing for UTC and for students," Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "In my view, it's greatly appreciated and needed."

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