UT Martin Somerville Center celebrates support from Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee General Assembly
Contact 1: Bud Grimes
MARTIN, Tenn. — Somerville city administrator Bob Turner recalls when a possible higher education center in Fayette County was first discussed some 10 years ago. What has been a dream for Turner and others moved a step closer to reality June 15 when elected officials, University of Tennessee representatives and others gathered in the main entrance of the former Methodist Fayette Hospital to celebrate state funding for the UT Martin Somerville Center. The center is projected to make the facility its new home in fall 2017 following extensive renovations.
The Tennessee General Assembly approved $250,000 in recurring funding for the center in the state’s 2016-17 budget. Also approved was $875,000 in one-time funding to support the hospital facility’s renovation. Gov. Bill Haslam was scheduled to attend the event and present a symbolic check from the state, but thunderstorms in the Nashville area prevented air travel to West Tennessee. Still, the celebration continued as those present saw many years of hard work and persistence finally result in a home for higher education in Somerville and Fayette County.
In an interview before the program began, Turner remembered that the possibility of a center coming to Fayette County gained new traction when he became Somerville’s mayor in 2011. It was then that he and current interim Mayor Ronnie Neill revived discussions about a possible higher education partner for the project, but little progress followed. Then in summer 2012, a meeting was held with UT and UT Martin officials, “and they just kind of changed our world at that point,” Turner said.
“They were going to bring in (the) UT Foundation to raise funds for this project and take a more active role in the whole thing, so we changed the whole idea to a UT Martin center,” he said. A new building for the center was initially proposed, but the project was cost-prohibitive. Methodist Fayette Hospital then closed in March 2015, and Fayette County officials suggested Methodist Healthcare give the facility to the town.
“They gave us $250,000 and this building and all the land that’s here (nine acres),” Turner said. “The town of Somerville owns this property.” The actual transfer occurred in July 2015.
Turner said the building will be occupied by several tenants, including UT Martin, which will use about 40 percent of the building, or approximately 21,000 square feet. One patient wing, which includes a commercial kitchen, will house UT Extension, while the second patient wing will be home to Fayette Literacy. About 20,000 square feet of vacant space will be allocated later on.
Neill emceed the program and welcomed attendees who gathered in the hospital’s former physicians’ wing waiting area. He recognized local and out-of-town guests, including William Kenley, CEO, Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown. Neill thanked Methodist Healthcare for its significant contribution in making the center possible and was then followed by speakers who addressed the project’s significance and potential impact in the immediate area and region.
Dr. Bob Smith, UT Martin interim chancellor, referenced statistics from the university’s Office of Extended Campus and Online Studies. He noted that 449 students graduated from the high schools in Fayette and Hardeman counties in 2015. Of that total, 143 attended college, but only three percent of those stayed within 30 miles from home. “And when we finish this project, that won’t be true any longer,” Smith assured the audience.
“The reality is at the University of Tennessee, we forge great partnerships every day with somebody somewhere, and that makes us entirely different,” said Dr. Joe DiPietro, University of Tennessee president, who followed Smith on the program. “And we’re entirely different, too, because we’re connected with all parts of Tennessee, like your county extension office right here with Fayette County.”
DiPietro also referenced UT Martin’s experience operating off-campus centers and how these higher-education facilities are making a difference. “It’s a very impressive kind of relationship (centers and communities), because it allows people in some ways to say, ‘I can give it (college) a try because it’s right in my hometown,’ … and we think in this region UT Martin provides the finest secondary education you can receive.”
Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), who chairs the Senate Education Committee and spearheaded the request for the governor’s support and the legislature’s recurring budget commitment to the project, was to introduce Gov. Haslam. She used the opportunity to highlight the governor’s Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect initiatives, “which are both game changers for youngsters who are graduating from our high schools and for non-traditional students, people who do have some college background but want to come back (to college),” she said. “These are highly unique opportunities in this country, and they (other states) are looking at us for leadership.”
Gresham joined others in thanking Methodist Healthcare for its role in making the UT Martin Somerville Center possible, which she said will provide a needed morale boost for future high school graduates. “When somebody graduates from a local high school, they know that they have options, and they’re not going to have to drive an hour or so to exercise those options, … they will get a good education right here at home,” Gresham said. “That is so significant to the youngsters today.”
UT Martin currently offers degree programs in social work, psychology and criminal justice in the area, with other programs projected to follow. Also available is the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies, which is designed specifically to reach adults who are the focus of Tennessee Reconnect. The center will also concentrate on job-skill training and meeting the immediate needs of existing and prospective employers.
As he considered what has been accomplished, Bob Turner pointed to examples of economic progress, such as the Memphis Regional Megasite to the north and the intermodal facility located 15 miles southwest of Somerville. People will now have the opportunity to attend college close to home, thanks to the UT Martin Somerville Center. “People have been looking forward to this (the center) for a long time,” Turner said. “I think it’s big deal.”
Kara Tapp was appointed Somerville Center director May 1. More information about the center is available at 901-465-7313.
PHOTO CAPTION – Officials gathered June 15 at the former Methodist Fayette Hospital to celebrate state support for the UT Martin Somerville Center. The Tennessee General Assembly approved $250,000 in recurring funding for the center in the state’s 2016-17 budget. Also approved was $875,000 in one-time funding to support the hospital facility’s renovation. The building is expected to open as the center’s new home in fall 2017. Pictured at the event are (l to r) State Rep. Jamie Jenkins (R-Somerville), UT Martin interim Chancellor Bob Smith, UT President Joe DiPietro, State Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown CEO William Kenley, and Somerville interim Mayor Ronnie Neill. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was unable to attend because of inclement weather.