Looking to rekindle the spirit of downtown Chattanooga's long-shuttered Kirkman Technical High School, Hamilton County leaders are interested in acquiring BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's 11-acre Golden Gateway site with the goal of developing it into a public school campus.
"A generational investment in public education in the heart of downtown Chattanooga would send a powerful message about our priorities as a community, while also providing for future growth," Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said in a news release. "This is our opportunity to fulfill a promise made three decades ago that the legacy of Kirkman Technical High School would live on."
Wamp said his administration looks forward to working with county commissioners to make a compelling proposal to BlueCross BlueShield leaders that the highest and best use of their site is to prepare Hamilton County students for careers.
Wamp's spokeswoman, Mary Francis Hoots, said the mayor's office had no further comment on the proposal at this time.
BlueCross BlueShield has occupied the Gateway campus at 401 W. M.L. King Blvd. since 1993 and recently put the property up for sale as it continues to embrace a shift toward remote work.
The company has 185,000 square feet of office space in the Gateway property, according to a real estate listing. The Hamilton County Assessor of Property values the land and building at $11.8 million.
Wamp's office said in the news release that the county's interest in the property comes as the Hamilton County school district aims to save taxpayer dollars through the adaptive reuse of existing facilities. Officials cited the construction of a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and plans for a new school at the former Cigna office building in East Brainerd.
City and county planners expect significant residential growth in Chattanooga's downtown to continue, Wamp's office said, meaning there's a need for more capacity at local schools. Officials haven't built a new downtown Chattanooga high school in more than 60 years. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson echoed that sentiment, noting there will inevitably be a need for more seats for students in the coming years.
"I've worked closely with Mayor Wamp to set priorities for improving the county's school facilities, and this 'Gateway' site fits both our intention to plan for future growth and to provide more career and technical pathways for students in every area of the county," Robertson said in the news release.
A spokesman for Hamilton County Schools, Steve Doremus, said Robertson was unavailable for further questions Friday.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, represents that portion of the county and said in a phone call Friday that he supports the idea 110%.
New housing units are popping up, particularly in the Highland Park and South Broad Street areas, Mackey said, and building a technical school in downtown Chattanooga would be a huge asset for Hamilton County.
"You have a world where the workforce is ever-changing," he said. "Robots, technology, apps are continuing to take jobs, and so many of the people in the workforce of the future will need skills, they'll need training that they can take to the marketplace."
The closure of Kirkman Technical High School in 1991 left a void in the vocational training opportunities available in the Chattanooga area, he said.
"The kids who went to Kirkman came to be small businessmen, and they came to be people who owned their own shops," he said.
Hamilton County recently joined the Associated General Contractors and other local partners to open a new Construction Career Center on Roanoke Avenue, which has been providing training to high school students and adults in masonry, plumbing and electrical jobs. But, Mackey said, there's still a huge need for more people with those types of skill sets.
Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said that represents a valuable opportunity for the county, but there are still plenty of details that need to be finalized.
That includes tallying the anticipated cost of the project with expected renovations, figuring out the types of programs that would be available and determining how it could relieve stress at The Howard School, where students and staff members have been struggling with overcrowding.
"It's very early in the process, but we appreciate the opportunity that might be available through one of our community's most significant employers," he said in a phone call.
Hamilton County school board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga, said it's no secret the system is facing a pressing list of facility needs, ranging from deferred maintenance to a lack of space.
"I do think this site is really compelling for a future school or some form of a campus — whether it's one school or multiple schools," Robinson said in a phone call. "There's been no plan put together just yet ... I think we'd be crazy to not consider the opportunity to acquire this property."
The district and state government are both heavily invested in vocational training, Robinson said. She said the governor's new funding formula incentivizes schools to provide more such educational opportunities. The system also has a series of future-ready institutes at its schools centered around career focuses such as advanced manufacturing, information technology and construction.
"Our school district has done a lot of really smart things over the last five or six years that are creative," she said. "I think this is another opportunity to explore a creative option on that front."
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker — who was mayor of Chattanooga from 2001 to 2005 — and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly have also both expressed support for the plan.
"Investing in quality education for children is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to build a better city, and we are particularly committed to backing projects that strengthen workforce development," Kelly said in the news release issued by Wamp's office. "Downtown Chattanooga is poised for historic growth and development, and this significant investment by Hamilton County in education could be transformative, bringing quality public education back into the urban core where it thrived for many decades."