NASHVILLE — The Tennessee State Building Commission has given Chattanooga State Community College approval to proceed with planning an estimated $20 million project in Rhea County.
The project would provide a new campus for the community college's academic programs in the county and its Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Dayton — operations now housed in a former Dayton high school building.
Commission members approved the project, which is funded through Gov. Bill Lee's $56.2 billion budget, during a meeting last week. The action enables Chattanooga State to proceed with selecting a designer and a company to serve as construction manager and general contractor.
Also approved by the commission at its Thursday meeting was authorization for Chattanooga State to proceed with $10.2 million in improvements to its Tennessee College of Applied Technology academic building in Chattanooga and its automotive technology building.
That comes as Chattanooga gears up to launch a new associate's degree in electric vehicle engineering. The program will prepare students to manufacture, diagnose, service and repair electric vehicles.
The degree will be initially offered through the existing Volkswagen Electric Vehicle apprenticeship program at the company's Chattanooga plant. Chattanooga State expects to expand that to its main campus in Chattanooga by 2025.
Lee's budget recommendations, approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, included $945.9 million to fund all 29 major projects recommended by the state's Higher Education Commission for Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology campuses across the state.
Also included was $50.6 million in maintenance funding for 15 projects at all 13 community colleges and 24 other improvements at 14 applied technology campuses. The governor is big on trades, having run a family-owned company providing residential and commercial HVAC, electrical, plumbing, appliance repair and other professional services, before becoming governor.
Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings, a former Chattanooga State president, said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview as she left the commission meeting in Nashville that the Rhea County expansion will be beneficial.
"They (Chattanooga State) already have a presence there, so this is to expand and enhance what we're already doing in Rhea County," Tydings said.
Chattanooga State's academic and applied technology functions in Rhea County are housed in a former downtown-area Dayton high school, Tydings noted. That will change when the campus will be located in the yet-to-be-built space at a Rhea County industrial park with programs training new technicians for local companies in Rhea and nearby counties.
"It'll be huge for Rhea County and surrounding counties for sure," said Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, in a phone interview.
He said the new site is located near the Rhea County Elementary School.
"For the whole area to get a TCAT facility is a pretty big thing," Travis said. "This is just going to put a new spin on the whole program, and it probably benefits rural counties so much more" with many younger residents seeking training in a trade.
Jeffrey Holmes, the regents' director of planning and development, estimated two-thirds of applied technology training in Rhea County would involve welding, machine tooling, mechatronics and robotics technician training.
The old campus would be vacated when the new Rhea County site opens, Chattanooga State Vice President Nancy Patterson said.
Patterson said the commission's actions made for a big day.
"And our hope and plans are to continue growing our programs with a new facility, and it gives us an opportunity to do that," she said by phone.
Patterson said Chattanooga State and Volkswagen Group of America officials are also pleased with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's actions last week to approve the new electric vehicle engineering degree.
"We are excited to see this new program become a reality and to welcome its first students to our Volkswagen Academy campus this fall," Steffi Wegener, assistant manager of training and development for the carmaker, said in a news release. "This is yet another milestone in our longstanding partnership with Chattanooga State Community College."
Patterson said Chattanooga State remains unique in Tennessee.
"We are the only community college in the state with a TCAT embedded in our organization," she said.
That directly benefits students with "stackable credentials" that allow students to advance in their career while also meeting needs of business and industry, Patterson added.
Patterson said the college is now proceeding with plans to add a fourth semester to its automotive technology program that focuses on EV and hybrid vehicle fundamentals and will provide lab space for students.