By Jeff Keeling
After a long road with several unexpected delays, Northeast State Community College will welcome the first students to its downtown Johnson City teaching site July 8, when a short summer intersession begins. A formal opening ceremony is slated for July 30, and fall semester classes will begin Aug. 24.
“Even more than we did when this process began, we believe this site will help us fulfill our mission and allow us to reach additional students in and around Johnson City,” Northeast State President Dr. Janice Gilliam said in an interview last week.
Gilliam expects 300-500 students at the site – first proposed in 2010 – for fall semester.
Most of the 13 classrooms will be ready by then, with the two science classrooms expected to be ready for spring semester 2016.
“Students will be able to get every course they need for a two-year transfer degree (to move to a four-year college),” Gilliam said.
The former Washington County government building bounded by Buffalo and Market streets eventually could serve 1,000 students. Gilliam said similar sites in Kingsport and Bristol have seen enrollment grow steadily, largely because many prospective community college students are more likely to enroll if services are closer to home.
“About a third of our students are from Washington County,” Gilliam said. “We think we can increase that with this location. If you’ve got kids, you’ve got a job – which describes many of our students – it’s just not realistic if you have to commute too far, but if you’ve got community college within 20 miles or so, people will come.”
Like the Bristol and Kingsport sites, 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 overseen by Jeff Little, who had 280 students at a similar program in Greensboro, N.C. before he was recruited here to the birthplace of country music.
“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.
Northeast has branched out with campuses or teaching sites in Kingsport and Bristol, and the Johnson City presence – which will have room for at least 1,000 students – has been in the works since late 2010. That was when Washington County sold the Downtown Centre to the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA), and the JCDA went to work on crafting a lease with Northeast.
The lease was signed in December 2011, but issues with the building, some of which increased the cost of renovation, delayed the process considerably. Gilliam said none of the obstacles dissuaded her, and in early August 2014, the state of Tennessee approved Rainey General Contractors’ low bid of $1,586,000 for final interior renovations. The company’s initial deadline was late March, but a glimpse of progress Thursday showed subcontractors still busy completing sheetrock, running electrical conduit and completing other tasks that made it apparent there were weeks left to go.
The delays with the contractor are part and parcel of a process that has had its frustrations – none of which has tested her resolve, Gilliam said.
Discussions about a Johnson City campus began more than five years ago when Gilliam accompanied Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce representatives to a summit in Washington, D.C. An advisory committee was formed to look at properties around the time that Washington County decided to vacate the Downtown Centre.
The building had some foundation issues, flooding problems, and needed a major makeover inside. “We had to convince TBR (the Tennessee Board of Regents) this was something we could invest in. It was not an easy job,” Gilliam said.
The JCDA pitched in, purchasing the building through its tax increment financing program and adding TIF money for renovations. Eventually, Northeast State had to increase its nominal lease payment to a more substantial $272,500 a year for five years to help offset the cost of renovations that had risen to well above $2 million.
In the interim, Tennessee Promise has come into play, bringing with it essentially free community college statewide and the likelihood of even more demand at community colleges. Gilliam doesn’t believe the delays at Johnson City have put a damper on interest, and she expects plenty of demand come fall.
“We get calls all the time, ‘we’re going to come as soon as you open Johnson City,’ and we think they’re still out there waiting.”