Aspirations to turn a prominent downtown Chattanooga property into a new Hamilton County public school have taken a major step toward reality.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has accepted Hamilton County's $10 million bid on its 11-acre Golden Gateway campus, which the company recently put on the market amid a shift toward remote work. The land sits at 401 W. M.L. King Blvd.
"The county put forward a competitive bid and a bold vision for the site," Roy Vaughn, whose role as chief human resources officer includes oversight of corporate properties and services, said in a news release issued Friday by the company. "We are excited about the future possibilities for Gateway given our history of supporting local education."
Hamilton County's bid is contingent on a majority vote by the County Commission, the company noted in the news release. If the panel approves the purchase, the company expects the transaction to close in the coming months and to transfer the property to the county in early 2024.
Mayor Weston Wamp and Superintendent Justin Robertson announced the county's interest in the site early last month, noting that it could help boost vocational education for students in a growing part of Hamilton County.
"I've been clear about my desire to see enhanced career and technical opportunities — ones that are focused on the jobs of the future," Wamp said by phone Friday. "We don't do that nearly as well in the southwestern corner of the county, where most of the population of the city of Chattanooga is, as we do in Soddy-Daisy where Sequoyah High School continues to set a high standard for career and technical education."
Being in the heart of downtown Chattanooga creates opportunities to partner with local companies on workforce development, Wamp said. The mayor also wants to enhance options for technical college dual enrollment, something Wamp said Hamilton County has been lacking.
Wamp added there's symbolic value in placing a school on a visible piece of property in the immediate vicinity of some of the city's largest employers.
"It matters that you enter into a downtown and you see that we didn't hide our schools over here on this cheap piece of land or this secondary, forgettable site," Wamp said. "Much like how this community and other communities used to build schools — like they were the most important institutions in the community — I think we're going to have an opportunity to be that bold."
Asked how career and technical education would factor into the programming at the school, Wamp said school officials will make many of those specific decisions. The mayor said he's heard resounding support from members of the Hamilton County Board of Education in making equitable investments in vocational education.
The state's new school funding formula, Wamp said, provides $5,000 for every student enrolled in a career and technical pathway, meaning the county could be in a position to capture more state funding.
Wamp anticipates Hamilton County will pay for the property by dipping into its rainy day fund, noting the county has reserves that are probably double the amount recommended under best practices for a government entity of its size. He expects those reserves will top $150 million by the end of the fiscal year.
Aiming to address an approximately $1 billion backlog in building repairs across the school system, Wamp and Robertson formed a facilities working group in September to evaluate the best ways to tackle the problem. He expects the group to release recommendations for modernizing the school system's facilities in mid-July.
Right now, Wamp said, the district has too much square footage and will need to look for ways to consolidate school facilities.
"In order to do that, we're going to have to acquire smart properties," Wamp said. "We're going to have to look for opportunities to do things differently and more efficiently than we have in the past. Acquiring this facility at roughly $50 a foot with acreage to build on is probably the best deal taxpayers have ever gotten related to public education."
Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, represents that portion of Hamilton County and said he's elated at the prospect of a new downtown school, which would provide residents of the urban core easier access to vocational training.
"The world has changed, and the type of training people need to be successful going forward has shifted," Mackey said in a phone call Friday. "College degrees are not as important as they once were. What is needed is people who can actually work — who have job skills. That new school is going to be a major asset to people in Hamilton County."
While Hamilton County has about 44,000 children in public schools, Mackey estimated there are approximately 15,000 in private schools, which he said is far too many. He hopes the new facility can offer a high level of education that would give middle class families the confidence to move their students into public schools.
Mackey added the strength of the local workforce is also a key consideration for companies hoping to move to the Hamilton County area.
Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, was likewise enthusiastic about the plan, saying in a phone call Friday that he's "pumped."
"I look forward to the design and plans from the school system," he said. "I appreciate everyone's involvement in the process."
Baker said he's unsure when the purchase will appear before the County Commission, but he's hoping for more definition on the vocational uses for the building. It would serve as a cost-effective means of providing additional resources to the school system.
"I'm excited," he said. "I'm really excited about the opportunity."
Hamilton County officials weren't the only ones with eyes on the land. A Michigan-based nonprofit also publicly expressed interest in the 11-acre property for affordable housing, sending a letter to BlueCross Blue Shield leadership that suggested the construction of 265 apartments. The group was seeking the land at no cost or at a discounted sale price.
The Hamilton County Property Assessor values the land and the building at $11.8 million.
"At $10 million, the Gateway building is an asset for Hamilton County and taxpayers," Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said in a text message Friday. "I look forward to further study into its highest use."