During the 1990s, the city of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw its manufacturing-based economy shrinking with no end in sight. This problem was being exacerbated by an unlikely culprit: Kingsport's public school system, which was widely recognized as one of the best in the state. The schools were placing many of its graduates in top-ranked colleges. However, few of these high achievers were returning to Kingsport after graduating college. Local leaders, looking for solutions to these problems, held a community-wide economic summit in 1999.
The summit gave rise to the city-led "Educate and Grow" program, now known as the Kingsport Higher Education Initiative (KHEI). The effort sought to diversify and revitalize an ailing economy in the Sullivan County area of northeast Tennessee by improving the overall education level of the labor force. Leaders felt that if Kingsport could offer a marketable workforce, it could attract new businesses to the area. Another critical component to the program's success would be engaging existing institutions and businesses. The program began by offering 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 countywide.
Kingsport, a midsized city lacking a college campus, then focused on developing an "academic village" to create significant local workforce development opportunities. The Regional Center for Applied Technology was the first educational facility established. Its five-year goal of enrolling 1,000 students was surpassed in two years.
Next, the city worked with NESTCC to establish a branch campus in the downtown area. In 2007, the city constructed a Regional Center for Health Professions at a cost of $4.8 million that houses all of NESTCC's health and nursing programs. Wellmont Health System, a major healthcare provider in Tennessee and Virginia, provided $1million in scholarship money.
The KHEI continues to expand the academic village, recently opening the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM). The RCAM is a joint effort of the Domtar and Eastman Chemical companies, along with NESTCC and the city of Kingsport, to help ensure that local industries have the skilled workforce they need. Finally, the Kingsport Center for Higher Education opened in the fall of 2009. It combines the resources of NESTCC, King College, Lincoln Memorial University, Carson-Newman College, and the University of Tennessee all under one roof. Students will be able to earn select associate, baccalaureate, and graduate degrees from the participating colleges and universities.
Kingsport’s economic recovery since the late 1990s is a direct result of global thinking about goals and outcomes by community leaders. Multiple indicators demonstrate the strong success of the Kingsport Higher Education Initiative: over $164 million in new construction for 2007 in Kingsport (nearly doubling the $88.5 million total of 2006), including $14.3 million in downtown private investment; 1,579 families from 35 states moved to Kingsport between July 2006 and June 2007; Kingsport ranked fourteenth in the nation for housing appreciation in the second quarter of 2008; in 2009, Forbes Magazine ranked Kingsport eighth in the nation for lowest cost of doing business for major metropolitan areas; and, Kingsport's median family income rose nearly 20 percent from 2000 to 2007.
2018 Update: Read about the "Educate and Grow" program, now known as the Kingsport Higher Education Initiative, and the positive impact it has had on the Kingsport community.