$1 million boosts Bradley County workforce training center

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / Officials and partners cheer as the ribbon is cut. The PIE Innovation Center in Cleveland holds its grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Officials and partners cheer as the ribbon is cut. The PIE Innovation Center in Cleveland holds its grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Polysilicon maker Wacker gave $1 million Tuesday to a new innovative workforce training site Gov. Bill Lee helped officially open while calling it "an opportunity to change people's lives."

"The state with the workforce will win in the future," said Tennessee's governor to several hundred people who turned out to mark the startup of the Partnerships in Industry and Education Innovation Center in Bradley County.

Lee also toured the $34.5 million facility where about 60 high school students are already coming for half of each school day to be trained and work in a variety of technical and medical careers in programs designed by local industry leaders.

The renovated former uniform-production factory that was one of the county's largest employers eventually should have about 600 to 800 students in training, officials said.

Amanda Lee, Bradley County school board chairwoman, told the group that the "long-anticipated day" started seven years ago.

"You've made history today," she said.

Linda Cash, Bradley County school superintendent, said the innovation center still reflects the entrepreneurial spirit apparent in the old plant's founders.

"Students will learn high-level skills," she said. "Our goal is to set them up for a bright future. I really believe this will be a game-changer for education."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, said that if there's a need in the Volunteer State, it's in workforce development.

"This is not only a model for Bradley County, it's a model for America," he said.

David Wilhoit, president and CEO of Wacker Chemical Corp., said in announcing the gift that the company has a more than century-long history in Germany.

"I think we'll have a long history in Bradley County," he said.

In July, Wacker unveiled plans to invest another $200 million in its Bradley County facility and add 200 more jobs. The company already employs about 700 people at the plant that opened in 2015.

Lee said the innovation center is unique because it's a partnership of the public schools, colleges, the private sector and nonprofit organizations. The state put about $1 million into the initiative about three years ago.

"What you see in there are facilities to educate diesel mechanics and health care workers, computer scientists and all types of opportunities for all types of young people," he said. "I see trajectories changed and lives changed."

Tennessee Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, said that from the state's "seed money" that was given the project, "a mighty oak has grown."

He said the center "could possibly set the course for the future of education in the state ... as a model."

Brittany Cannon, the center's director, said that what started seven years ago was just a dream.

"Welcome to our field of dreams," she told the group. "We're going to reach higher and go the distance."

Doug Berry, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development, said in an interview that companies with which he talks are looking for both quality and quantity when it comes to the workforce.

He said the feedback on the center he's receiving is that "they've never seen anything like this in the country."

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks said the facility will serve as a regional training center and model.

"We already have other states coming to see it," he said in an interview.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.


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