Gov. Bill Lee and other state and local officials broke ground today for construction of the McMinn Higher Education Center in Athens, a collaborative facility that will house programs offered by Cleveland State Community College, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Athens, and UT Extension.
The $18 million, 52,000-square-foot center is expected to open for classes and training in 2021. It will also provide space for local industry training to upgrade the skills of the area’s workforce.
The project won the go-ahead earlier this year when Gov. Lee included just over $14.2 million in state funding in his state budget proposal, which won approval by the General Assembly with the strong support of the area’s legislators, including Sen. Mike Bell and Rep. Mark Cochran. McMinn County and the City of Athens also provided funding, the McMinn Economic Development Authority contributed the industrial park property where it will stand, and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development provided a $2 million grant.
Cleveland State’s Athens Center will relocate to the new structure from its current leased space, allowing it to expand its program offerings significantly. It will be able to offer more general education courses, including those with biology and chemistry labs, as well as expand both business and agriculture programs.
The new facility will also allow TCAT Athens to expand its career and technical education programs. TCAT Athens, which will maintain its existing campus, will initially offer machine tool technology and tool and die technology at the new facility and expects to add more training programs as demand requires.
UT Extension’s McMinn County offices will also relocate into the facility, serving area residents with educational programs in agriculture, family and consumer sciences, community resource development, 4-H programs and others. UT Extension is an outreach branch of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
Gov. Lee commended the local leaders who have worked for and supported the project. “This is not only a facility that’s going to lead our state, but it’s also going to be a facility that’s a leader in the country. It embodies everything that’s good about the future of education. It’s a true partnership. This is going to change this community,” the governor told more than 100 area residents and community leaders who gathered for the ceremonial groundbreaking.
Others who spoke at the event were McMinn County Mayor John Gentry, Athens Mayor Chuck Burris, TCAT Athens President Stewart Smith, Cleveland State President Bill Seymour, Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora W. Tydings, Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Mike Krauss, and UT Extension’s Eastern Regional Director David Perrin.
Tydings thanked the governor, state legislators and local officials for advancing the project to funding, and local businesses who advocated for it as a center for both academic and workforce training. "Governor, your emphasis on career and technical education is what Tennessee needs right now, and this project is a perfect embodiment of that vision," she said.
Cleveland State and TCAT Athens are part of the College System of Tennessee, governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Seymour said that when Cleveland State’s Athens Center moves into the McMinn Higher Education Center, it will increase by 40 percent the number of degrees that area students can complete in Athens without having to drive to the main campus in Cleveland.
“This is the only capital outlay project funded this year for Tennessee Board of Regents colleges and this happened, in my mind, for two primary reasons. First, it’s a unique collaboration of multiple education institutions coming together under one roof for only one purpose – and that is serving the education and workforce needs of this community,” Seymour said.
“Second, this community has stepped up in ways that many people just can’t imagine – through your major gifts of support and encouragement and also this property and matching funds. It was a project that I think was just too good to pass up and I think everyone recognized that,” he said.
Smith said that Gentry approached him several years ago “with a vision for a facility that would provide area residents with more opportunities for education. Today, we are here, and that dream is realized. This building will be bricks and mortar, but it’s building a community. I truly believe that this center will positively impact not just McMinn County but the region as a whole,” he said.
The State Building Commission approved the design in June and awarded a construction management contract to Rouse Construction Co.
The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.