New Math/Science Facility To Be Built Along Erwin Hwy. With USDA Funds
BY KEN LITTLE
A $39 million Community Facilities direct loan for the renovation of current space and construction of a new science and math building at Tusculum College was announced Thursday by Tammye Trevino, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development administrator.
College administrators, trustees and faculty members were joined by more than 100 elected officials and community leaders at a news conference held at the college to share in the good news.
"This is the most significant day in the life of Tusculum College and the Tusculum community," said local businessman and philanthropist Scott M. Niswonger, a 1987 Tusculum College graduate.
Many present for the announcement had a direct role in making the loan a reality.
Trevino said as part of her Rural Development job, she travels around the country making similar announcements at institutions that receive loans.
None is more worthy than Tusculum College, Trevino said. Investments in rural communities, she added "are vital for America as a whole."
"This is one project that is absolutely worth it," she said. "The [Obama] administration totally understands."
'KEY ECONOMIC DRIVER'
Tusculum College "is a key economic driver for Greene County and the Northeast Tennessee region," Trevino said in announcing the partnership between the college and the USDA.
"The college's faculty and staff have a long, distinguished history of ensuring that businesses have a homegrown source of well-educated workers to keep the region competitive and our rural communities healthy," she said.
The USDA loan will lower overhead while also funding renovations to historic Treadway Hall and construction of a new science and math facility, college officials said.
It will be called the Ronald H. and Verna June Meen Center for Science and Math.
The planned three-story, 50,000-square-foot facility is named after two major benefactors of the college.
Kingsport resident Verna June Meen was recognized at the announcement by college President Dr. Nancy B. Moody. Her late husband, Dr. Ronald H. Meen, was an organic chemist.
Verna June Meen, of Kingsport, recently made a $3.875 million gift to the college in memory of her late husband. Neither attended Tusculum College.
Moody said many people share the credit for making the loan possible.
"It was a group effort," she said.
LOWERED DEBT SERVICE
Also making comments at the announcement with Trevino, Moody and Niswonger were U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, of Johnson City; Dr. Ken Bowman, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees; and Bobby Goode, Tennessee director of the USDA's Rural Development program.
Moody said that the lower interest rate USDA loan will significantly cut what Tusculum College pays in debt service, making the new construction and renovation possible, while also improving the college's overall finances.
Goode, who serves as the state's administrator of rural housing and business programs, said the Tusculum College loan is a significant example of ongoing work "to bring rural development of all areas of Tennessee."
Roe, a medical doctor in Johnson City for more than 30 years, said he grew up in a rural area and was the first generation of his family to receive a college education.
He jokingly suggested that Trevino "round off" the loan figure at $40 million.
The Tusculum College project "is something that this community and this region can be really, really proud of," he said.
Ensuring a quality education for all Americans, including those who live in rural areas, will help keep the U.S. the most productive country in the world, Roe said.
The cost of the science and math building was estimated in July to be about $15.5 million, including the gift from Verna Meen.
College spokeswoman Eugenia Estes said today that a significant percentage of the $39 million will go toward the construction and outfitting of that building.
Other money will be used for a renovation of the 82-year-old Treadway Science Building, "other campus improvements" and expenses associated with refinancing, she said.
To Niswonger, the USDA loan embodies "the magnificent renaissance of this college and this community."
Tusculum College has been serving the educational and spiritual needs of community for over 200 years, Niswonger said.
"It's been an amazing journey," he said.
The estimated economic impact of Tusculum College on Greene County and the surrounding area is $65 million, Niswonger said, citing a 2009 study.
The new science and math building will help continue that trend, he said.
"Our continued growth and success lifts up these students through these opportunities," Niswonger said.
Bowman said that the project and the USDA loan "is absolutely phenomenal."
The specifics of what will be included in the science and math facility are currently being worked out, Bowman said.
"We're going through a process right now where we're really going through a wish list of what we want to have embodied in the building," he said.
College administrators, along with science and mathematics faculty members, have visited other area colleges to see what similar buildings include, he said.
"We'll go through a design phase, and it will probably be over a year before we can start construction," Bowman said.
College officials said the new science and math facility will open for classes in about three years.
It will be located along the Erwin Highway, next to the Annie Hogan Byrd Fine Arts building, where campus housing and the building housing the college band currently stand. It will be located on property that has the highest elevation on campus.
"It will have a phenomenal view of the Smoky Mountains," Bowman said.
LOCAL LEADERS PRAISED
Trevino lauded Tusculum officials and community leaders during a visit to USDA projects in North Carolina and Tennessee this week.
She delivered the lunchtime keynote address Thursday to the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises' Residential Energy Efficiency Summit at the Millennium Conference Center at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City before traveling to Greeneville.
Added Bowman: "We are pleased that USDA believes in Tusculum's mission and that we are fiscally responsible.
"The terms of this loan not only lower costs, but also make it possible for us to move forward on other important and needed projects, such as the Ronald H. and Verna June Meen Center for Science and Math."
Niswonger, also a member of the Board of Trustees, agreed that the USDA loan allows immediate needs to be addressed.
"This partnership with USDA Rural Development allows us to address facility needs to positively impact students and increase their educational opportunities as soon as possible. It will also have a tremendous local economic impact," Bowman said.
Roe said the partnership, "will allow for important upgrades and renovations on campus without crippling the college financially."
Roe said the group behind the Tusculum College-USDA project is committed to its success.
"I've worked with everyone involved in this partnership, and you won't find a group of people more dedicated to rural development and improving lives of those in the First District.
"I thank the USDA, Tusculum and their Board of Trustees for all their hard work on these issues," he said.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Heather Patchett, college Vice President for Institutional Advancement, said efforts have already begun to secure gifts for the construction of the new Center for Science and Math "that will provide advanced facilities for research by faculty and students and provide the room needed for Tusculum to explore the addition of new courses and programs needed in the region."
She added, "There are also several naming opportunities available as part of the project, and alumni and friends of the college have already indicated great interest in the science building."
USDA RURAL DEVELOPMENT
USDA Rural Development invests in jobs, infrastructure, community development, homeownership and affordable rental housing to improve the economic health and increase opportunities in rural communities.
During the last four years the agency has assisted more than 1.5 million Tennessee families and businesses in 158 communities, investing more than $3.3 billion into local economies through affordable loans, loan guarantees and grants.
For more information on Rural Development programs available in Northeast Tennessee, contact the Rural Development Area Office in Greeneville at (423) 638-4771, ext. 4; or toll-free at (800) 342-3149, ext. 1490. Visit http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/tn for online information.