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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Officials, including Gov. Bill Lee, center, toss dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony photo op for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Athens, Tenn. The new facility will include the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Athens, Cleveland State Community College, and the McMinn County UT Extension Institute of Agriculture.

This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, with more information and photos.

The new McMinn Higher Education Center will be a model for higher education not only for the state, but for the country, according to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, because it is a crossroads of education institutions and industry that will help provide workforce development opportunities in rural areas that might otherwise be left behind.

"We are going to lead the nation in higher education by what's being done here because this is unique," he said as he stood in a field across from Denso's McMinn County plant Friday. "It's different, it's groundbreaking in its concept. It embodies everything that's good about the future of education."

The $17.75 million project, more than seven years in the making, is a collaborative among the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Athens, Cleveland State Community College, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture's Extension Services, Adult Education, McMinn County and Athens city governments, as well as local industry.

The facility is intended to consolidate different educational and career assistance efforts while providing local industry workforce training and offering two-year associate's degrees in agriculture and other services. Adult Basic Education programs also will be housed there.

"It's a true partnership," Lee said during a groundbreaking ceremony for the facility. "Government isn't the answer to the greatest challenges we face in our day but government has a real important responsibility and that is to create an opportunity for real partnership where a community comes together. This is going to change this community."

It's workforce and economic development at its best, according to Bill Seymour, president of Cleveland State Community College.

"It is a unique collaboration of multiple education institutions coming together under one roof for one purpose: serving the education and economic needs of this community," he said.

The McMinn center aligns with Lee's push to strengthen the economies of rural communities and overall workforce development as the state strives to reach its "Drive to 55" goal of 55% of adults having some type of postsecondary degree or credential by 2025.

Under former Gov. Bill Haslam, the state increased efforts to provide multiple pathways to Tennesseans to pursue postsecondary degrees at four-year universities, community colleges and career and vocational schools.

Lee also emphasized the significance of the center being home to agricultural education programs through the UT Agriculture extension that it will house.

"The No. 1 economic sector in the state of Tennessee is agriculture, we want it to stay that," he said. "We actually want it to expand. And if we don't invest in agricultural education, there will not be a next generation that understands the importance of ag to this economy," he said.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings said the initiative is the embodiment of Lee's emphasis on career and technical education.

"We have to change the way we think about what skilled trades is, what the jobs of the future are, what the future workforce needs are going to be," she said.

Lee told reporters Friday he will continue to assess rural areas of the state that need increased support in education and workforce development, though there isn't currently a project "on the books."

"We are looking at the overall higher education system. This is a model that will allow us to talk about the opportunities to duplicate this in other places," he said.

For Athens City Manager Seth Sumner the center is an example of the "rural renaissance" the community and Southeast Tennessee is experiencing.

"You don't have to be big-city to do big things," Sumner said. "We are currently experiencing a promising venture that embodies the strengths of regional partnerships where together we are constructing resources for the next generation of Tennesseans. More than bricks and metal, this building will be a symbol of this community's everlasting investment in our most important asset, human capital."

The State Building Commission awarded the construction contract for the 53,330-square-foot center to Knoxville-based Rouse Construction Co. in July.

The facility is located across the highway from the Denso plant, which manufactures components and systems for automakers and employs about a thousand workers. The property itself was donated by the McMinn County's Economic Development Council.

On an upper level of the building there will be rooms outfitted for classes such as mathematics, biology and chemistry labs, as well as space for computers and EMS training and nursing. The facility also will feature community spaces, a student lounge and a cafe.

Earlier this year, Tydings estimated state government's cost would be $14.23 million, with the remaining $3.4 million coming from other sources.

McMinn County provided the equivalent of $1 million toward the project, while the city of Athens contributed $165,000, according to the State Building Commission.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said higher education is not a traditional area in which local governments invest or develop, but it's an important one for the region.

"The message is being heard by our young people that there's a great quality of life that can be found in the area of skilled trades, and this building will be a testament to that," Gentry said.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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