Leaders, Community Join For 'Topping-Out' Ceremony
BY MICHAEL S. RENEAU
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
A white steel beam sat in front of the box office of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center (NPAC) Thursday, adorned with signatures. In a few weeks, it will be the topmost beam at Walters State Community College's new Greeneville/Greene County Campus building, currently under construction.
Walters State hosted a "topping-out" ceremony Thursday at NPAC to commemorate a major milestone in the expansion project. The new 104,000-square-foot building is projected to open in January 2015.
"Topping-out" ceremonies originated in Europe as a way for villages to celebrate new structures, Walters State President Dr. Wade McCamey said at the ceremony.
"So it is in that spirit in which we are here today to celebrate and recognize the many people who have supported this project to this date," McCamey said.
At the end of the ceremony, guests were invited to sign the beam. Their signatures will remain there, even when the beam is placed at the top of the new building in a few weeks.
Numerous guests attended the ceremony, including a host of local elected officials, project architect John Fisher, top officials from Knoxville-based contractor Johnson & Gaylon Construction, faculty and students from Walters State, representatives from the Tennessee Board of Regents, local businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger, state Rep. David Hawk, state Senator Steve Southerland and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
Johnson & Galyon hosted a luncheon at the General Morgan Inn prior to the ceremony for local officials and some others who have been involved in the project or supportive of it.
Dr. McCamey spoke briefly at the luncheon, expressing appreciation for the many ways in which those present had contributed to the expansion of the local WSCC campus.
'THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX'
State Sen. Ramsey, of Blountville, a professional auctioneer who earned his auctioneer certificate through Walters State in 1981, touted the expansion of the campus as an example of Tennessee's push to better educate and train local workforces.
He mentioned Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign, in which state officials hope that by the year 2025, 55 percent of the state's population will have either a college degree or college-level certificate.
"In order to do that, we're going to have to think outside the box," Ramsey said. "We're going to have to expand what we're doing now in lots of different ways. This is the perfect example of thinking outside the box."
Ramsey, who's also vice-chairman of the Tennessee Building Commission, which approved state funding of the expansion, applauded Greeneville-based architect John Fisher and his work on the project.
Ramsey said Fisher's previous projects, including buildings at Tusculum College and East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, show "he is second to none."
McCamey said that, after seeing initial drawings of the new building, one Walters State student said, "You know, I think I'll have to start dressing better out of respect for the new building."
Construction of the new building began last April. Walters State announced the $20 million expansion in August 2011.
On Thursday, McCamey recounted how Walters State was awarded $9 million in grant funds by the Tennessee Board of Regents, the single largest state-supported capital outlay in the history of Walters State.
He noted that, in 2010, when federal stimulus funds were allocated to TennCare, $87 million in state money became available to be used elsewhere.
McCamey credited state Rep. David Hawk, then the chairman of the Tennessee House of Representatives Education Subcommittee, with playing the key role in getting that $87 million allocated for the state's community colleges.
In a competitive grant process, Walters State submitted an application for the Greeneville/Greene County Campus expansion and was one of five community colleges to be awarded the maximum grant amount.
In order to secure the grant, the college had to raise 15 percent of the $20 million project cost as a local match for the state funds -- and there were only two months to come up with the match.
Scott Niswonger actually offered to donate as much as 20 percent of the cost, McCamey said. Eventually, he donated 15 percent of the grant once the state announced it was awarding Walters State $9 million.
"If it were not for local philanthropist and businessman Scott Niswonger, we would not be here today celebrating the expansion of the Walters State Greeneville/Greene County campus," McCamey said.
"Scott is the reason Walters State received $9 million to expand the Greeneville campus."
"This building will represent a better future for this community," Niswonger told guests.
He said the expansion represents a renewed commitment to higher education and workforce training for potential jobs and industries in Greene County.
"We've got to have that to remain competitive, to create new jobs and retain jobs," he said.
In an interview with The Greeneville Sun after the ceremony, architect Fisher, who has worked on numerous projects with the Tennessee Board of Regents and regional universities and colleges, agreed that the expansion represents a commitment to building the local economy.
"This is an absolutely beautiful community, but you have to have jobs," he said.
When the new facility is finished, Walters State plans to add an occupational therapist program and expand its physical therapist assistant program.
The college will also expand its public safety programs, including the Walters State Law Enforcement Academy, according to a news release.
For more information on the new facility, please see accompanying article on this page.