By Jeff Keeling
It was touch and go up until last week, but Northeast State Community College’s downtown teaching site at the Downtown Centre will open for the first day of fall semester Monday. Nearly 250 students were enrolled as of Friday, and the site will open with 10 full-time non-faculty employees and about 40 instructors teaching at least one class each.
“We’ve been working hard; the inspections passed this week,” Northeast State President Dr. Janice Gilliam told Johnson City Development Authority commissioners Friday. The JCDA owns the Downtown Centre. Purchase and renovation costs have been funded largely through tax increment financing (TIF) administered by JCDA and deriving from increases in property tax revenues in the downtown TIF district.
Five classrooms will be in operation next week after the college gained partial occupancy, and all 13 classrooms will be in use starting in October, when a second cohort of students will begin classes. Two science labs will open next fall.
“People have been working really hard, and I appreciate your support through all this,” Gilliam said.
“This” includes both cost increases and a number of delays that have added up to around two years, causing frustration for both the school and the JCDA, which purchased the building from Washington County nearly five years ago. The most recent delays came as general contractor Rainey Construction missed its completion deadline by months. Rainey’s lack of progress threatened to prevent operations from beginning fall semester, the crucial first term for the new Tennessee Promise program that essentially backstops tuition for all first-time freshmen statewide.
“We did have to pull out the big hammer and we weren’t afraid to,” Gilliam said, referring to the outcome with Rainey. “Six weeks ago it was not going to happen on the track it was going, so we got together with TBR (Tennessee Board of Regents), and folks in legal, and the bond agent.
“They were able to pull in another organization and Landmark has come in and lots of work has been done. If you haven’t been in you’re going to be in for a really nice treat.”
Landmark Corporation, with offices in Johnson City and Knoxville, offers both new construction and “surety completion work,” and has essentially taken over the project. The Washington County Jail and a Kingsport sewer extension project are listed on its website as among the surety projects it’s completed, with the jail work involving electrical and security services after the electrical company defaulted.
Gilliam said students of modest means – many of them the first in their families to attend college – are the biggest winners. Many of those who will attend in Johnson City have no way to get to Northeast’s main campus in Blountville.
“I’d say up to half the students probably would not have been able to go had we not had this campus,” she said. “When we weren’t sure we would be open for fall we did get a lot of calls from people who were concerned that as Tennessee Promise students, they wouldn’t have been able to go without this site being open because of transportation issues.”
The rationale for TIF funding has been the expected economic boost an influx of students and faculty will bring to downtown, and after all the waiting, that effect is finally in sight. Gilliam said even at its inception, the site will have 20 full-time faculty teaching some courses there, about as many adjunct faculty, and 10 administrative personnel headed by Dr. Keith Young, the teaching site’s dean.
“We’re excited about that,” JCDA chairman Philip Cox said after Gilliam’s update and prior to a tour of the building. “That’s great news. It’ll be good to have more people down here and it will drive some more foot traffic. I’m sure the restaurants will appreciate that.”
The latest renovation cost increases spurred JCDA to borrow another $1.2 million against its TIF revenue, but that amount is being offset through a five-year lease the college signed earlier this year. Prior to the $1.2 million, JCDA paid $1 million for the building and $1 million for renovations. The lease – the college was paying a nominal $10 per year – is for $272,500 per year.
Gilliam said she expects around 500 students to be enrolled by fall 2016. Eventually, the site could handle more than 1,000.
Like similar sites in Bristol and Kingsport, Johnson City’s will carve out its own niche in terminal degree programs along with catering to students who plan to transfer to four-year colleges. Kingsport is the only place Northeast State offers chemical operator and auto body coursework. In Bristol, the calling card is an entertainment technology program.
“For Johnson City we’re looking at agriculture, horticulture and agribusiness programs,” Gilliam said. Such programs also would require some outdoor property for practical coursework, and the college has feelers out for various options.
“There is a big push for the agriculture and horticulture industries with a good number of projected job openings,” Gilliam said. A focus on hospitality and culinary programs is another potential specialty for the Johnson City site.
“We’ll have additional courses based on demand,” Gilliam added.