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Interview with Miles Burdine, President and CEO and Nicole Austin, Director of Workforce Development and Government Relations at the Kingsport Area (TN) Chamber of Commerce

Chaaron Pearson on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 1:01:28 pm 

Kingsport, Tennessee just won the Harvard Innovations in American Government Award for their efforts in education.  Miles Burdine, President and CEO and Nicole Austin, Director of Workforce Development and Government Relations at the Kingsport Area (TN) Chamber of Commerce share the chamber’s workforce development and education initiatives in a virtual interview.

1. Can you give us some background on how the community began to focus on education? 

In the late 1990s, Kingsport’s strong manufacturing base was in decline.  Willamette Paper Mill (now Domtar), located in downtown, announced it would cut 150 jobs.  JPS Industries announced cuts of 100 jobs at its now defunct Borden Mill plant.  Eastman Chemical Company, then Tennessee’s largest employer, announced three possible scenarios: downsize significantly, move corporate headquarters and/or close local operations.  The decision was the first layoff (1,200) in the company’s nearly 100-year history.  With the local housing market stagnant and retail expansion non-existent, more than a few residents set their sights on other communities where opportunities seemed better. One city leader said, “The last one to leave — turn the lights out.”  A city leadership staff member explained, “It was a hard time to be optimistic about Kingsport’s future and no reason to change until significant outside threats questioned our ability to survive.”  Our City decided it was time for change.  We had to reinvent ourselves if we were going to survive.  In 1999, a city-led "Economic Summit" developed solutions through community-wide participation: training and workforce development, promotion of the entrepreneurial spirit and diversification of the economic base.  A common element realized was education.    

2. Was the chamber involved from the beginning? 

Yes, the Chamber has been involved from the very beginning!  The Mayor of Kingsport at that time brought the Chamber and business leaders in our community together for an “Economic Summit”.  Some time later, Dr. Locke who was then president of Northeast State Community College tasked the Chamber with putting together a meeting with business leaders to find out in his words “what do I need to teach that will help you hire my graduates”.  Since then the Chamber has been involved in all levels of this project.  From advocating for the Educate and Grow program to working on the Academic Village the Chamber has had an active role in making this change in our community. 

3. I’ve heard about Kingsport’s education initiatives and read your award nomination for the Harvard Innovations in American Government Award (which Kingsport won), but for those readers hearing about this for the first time, can you give an overview of Kingsport’s education and workforce development strategy?

Several strategies and plans developed out the mayors 1999 Economic Summit.  We began our work with a city-led effort called "Educate and Grow," which offered scholarships to Northeast State Technical Community College (NESTCC) for any city high school graduate meeting entrance requirements.  The Sullivan County Commission soon expanded the program county-wide.

Kingsport is a mid-sized city lacking a college campus.  We then focused on developing an academic village for convenient workforce development opportunities.  The Academic Village consists of four buildings focusing on a different area of specialty with a 5th building currently in the planning stages.  The buildings are located in the heart of our downtown adjacent to childcare and a public transit system.  The first building constructed was the Regional Center for Applied Technology (RCAT) combined under one roof in the downtown area.  The original five-year goal for students was 1,000 which was surpassed in two years.   RCAT was a $1.1 million dollar investment.

The next building constructed was the Regional Center for Health Professions (RCHP).  The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved funding a $4 M, 42,000 square-foot Regional Center for Health Professions (RCHP) adjacent to RCAT.  Wellmont Health System, a major healthcare provider (Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky), provided $1M in scholarship money.  King College (private) provides associate degrees to nearly 400 students in areas of nursing and five medical technology lines such as cardiovascular and ophthalmological technology, rivaled by only a handful of schools across the country.

 The third building in this village is the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM).   RCAM is a venture from two Kingsport-based companies, Eastman and Domtar.  A $2.7 M, 26,000 square foot - Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) was constructed to focus on vocational based education (i.e. welding, pipe-fitting, etc.).

In fall of 2009, Kingsport opened the Kingsport Center for Higher Education (KCHE)

A fourth building in the downtown ‘village,’ a $13 M city-funded, 54,000 square foot Kingsport Higher Education Center (KHEC) open in fall of 2009.  Baccalaureate and higher degrees from at least five public and private universities, with all necessary instructional and student support services, are offered. 

KCHE is the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Green Building Rating System) certified Higher Education Facility in the State of Tennessee.  Currently at Silver level.   NeSCC – 894 students

King College – 135 Students

Lincoln Memorial University – 98 Students

Carson Newman – Will begin at a later date

University of Tennessee – 50 on-line students

Plans are underway for the next building in our Academic Village which will be the Pal Barger School of Automotive Technology – AKA “R-PAL”.

Local businessman Pal Barger made a $400,000 donation for the purchase of a facility in the academic village.  This facility will house NeSCC automotive services program.  This new facility, when complete, will encompass all aspect of auto body training – estimating, building and reconstruction, repair and painting. 

Beyond the Academic Village

In October 2009, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman approved to fund GED testing scholarships to cover GED examinations. 

According to the Sullivan County/ Kingsport GED program – of the 153,000 people living in Sullivan County, approximately 27,500 do not have a high school diploma (18 percent).  Just over 27 percent of these people are living at or below the national poverty level and 95 percent of them remain in Sullivan County for longer than one year.

Harvard Award

In September 2009, The Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University announced that Kingsport, Tennessee was a 2009 Innovations in American Government Award winner. 

Over 700 nominations – Kingsport was one of three top winners. 

QUOTE FROM STEPHEN GOLDSMITH, DIRECTOR OF THE INNOVATIONS PROGRAM AT HARVARD

“Instead of traditional tax incentives, Kingsport has revitalized its economy by making its workforce more competitive,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School. “They recognized that today’s high school diploma does not adequately prepare students for the challenges of the global economy. Cities across the country can learn from Kingsport’s work in revamping curricula, building new infrastructure, and developing creative partnerships.”

4. How successful was the initiative when it first began?  Did you achieve your planned goals?

Since Kingsport first began making changes to better ourselves and increase the academic attainment level or our city, we have met our goals and made a positive change in our community.  Below are some statistics and measures on how we are measuring our success. 

Statistics indicate, since the inception of the Higher Education Initiative there has been an increase in educational attainment of the Kingsport population 25 years and over. 

These indicators include:

  • A 20.8 percent decrease in those with less than a 9th grade education
  • A 13.9 percent decrease in those 9th to 12th grade with no diploma
  • A 23.0 percent increase in the High School Graduate (includes equivalence)
  • A 27.5 percent increase in those with an Associate Degree
  • A 19.2 percent increase in those with a Bachelor’s Degree

With the community focusing on higher education as an economic development priority, Northeast State Technical Community College realized a 248 percent increase from 2000-2007, in the number of students graduating in the spring of each year from high school in Sullivan County who enrolled at NESTCC during the fall semester of the same years. 

Since the opening of the Regional Center for Applied Technology in the fall of 2002, the Higher Education enrollment in the downtown campuses has risen to 1,208 students.  This includes the Regional Center for Health Professions with the opening enrollment in the fall of 2008 at 351. 

These numbers show success in pushing the importance of educational attainment for a diversified economy.  During the higher education initiative years, NESTCC main campus has seen enrollment grow, evidencing that the numbers of students did not just migrate to the downtown area of Kingsport, but rather the numbers of those seeking higher education has risen in the region.   

Kingsport realized that having an increase in its young adult population was critical to economic development.  Over a seven year period during the initiative, the number of college age city residents (age 20-24) increased 26 percent. 

The downtown area of Kingsport, where the city invested in the higher education facilities, experienced a $20.2 M positive change in appraised property values.  This growth represents taxable property only.  Non-taxable development like the higher education facilities and major church renovations are not included. 

Since the late 1990s, Kingsport experienced a loss of 10,500 manufacturing jobs.  Leaders recognized a major key to reinventing Kingsport was having a more diversified economy.  Evidence of diversification is shown through the additions of 5,400 health care jobs, 2,800 leisure/ hospitality jobs, 1,300 natural resources/mining/construction jobs, 600 financial jobs, 500 information jobs.  In 2000, there were 17,638 city residents employed.  In 2007, 19,159 city residents were employed.  During that same period of time the median family income rose nearly 20 percent to $48,351.     

5. Where did the funding for the initiative come from? 

The funding for these buildings came from public private partnerships.  Some were City funded and others came from grants money and investments from local businesses.  That information is listed for each building in the question above. 

6. Do you have any advice or recommendations for other chambers working on education reform?

Develop a workable strategy and involve your community.  It is a necessity if you want community buy in and participation.  When we began working on the academic Village the Chamber did a survey assessment of our businesses to see how much interest and need there was for an Academic Village.  The results were clear, this is exactly what our community wanted and needed and today the evidence of that can be seen in our downtown. 

Your City leaders need to have buy in.  Remember all of this began when our City took the first step and financially supported Education and Grow to raise the academic bar.  Actually the process began even before that when our then mayor took the very first step and organized an Economic Summit at which we recognized our problems and set out to fix them. 

Go visit other communities.  We made many trips to South Carolina to call on others who had built similar facilities and had made a positive impact in their communities.  Of course our door is always open in Kingsport!   Since winning the Harvard Award for Innovations in Government we have hosted many groups in our city.  We will organize and host a one day session with the leaders who were instrumental in the process and explain how this all came to be.  To schedule a visit contact Nicole Austin at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce 423-392-8835.

 7. Anything else you’d like to share with the group?

Help yourself.  Kingsport did this on our own.  We didn’t go to the state looking for a handout or for someone to fix our problems.  We did it ourselves.  It’s your community.  If you invest in yourselves others will follow. 

 

Tags: education, Workforce Development

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