Rail Yard Renews Higher Education Effort in Somerville

By Bill Dries

Plans for a higher education presence in Fayette County could take a substantial leap forward early in 2013 after years of general plans for such a presence.

Leaders in Somerville, the county seat, launched the drive for a 26,000-square-foot “Fayette County Higher Education Center” in September. There has been general discussion for such a center the last two years.

The center would be built on U.S. 64 between the Fayette County towns of Somerville and Oakland.

“We’ve put a floor plan together that is our idea of what it might look like,” said Somerville Mayor Bob Turner of a still-tentative plan that would include space for the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee at Martin, Southwest Tennessee Community College and the Tennessee Technology Center in Whiteville, Tenn.

The four institutions involved represent every part of the state’s higher education system.

What took the project from a general discussion to specific floor plans is the presence of the Norfolk Southern Corp. intermodal facility in Rossville.

“That’s what we are trying towards is getting people trained for those jobs. The intermodal facility itself is only going to create a couple of hundred jobs – 300 to 400 jobs tops,” Turner said. “But what’s going to create the jobs is all of the development around the intermodal facility – potentially 5,000 to 7,000 jobs there. Do we want people from all over the state to get the jobs? Of course we do. But we would sure like to get some people from here to get some of those jobs.”

The next crucial step is a needs assessment survey and study leaders of the University of Tennessee at Martin are doing. The study results would make the case for state funding, which Turner and others envision as the bulk of the financing needed along with private funding and what Turner said would be a minimal amount of local government money.

“Once they step up, that might change some things pretty rapidly,” Turner said of involvement by the University of Tennessee at Martin. “That’s what we are kind of hoping for.”

The results of the survey, which had more than 300 respondents, are being analyzed.

UT Martin has operated several other centers in the region since 1998 at Selmer, Parsons, Ripley and Jackson. But responding for the university, Tommy Cates, executive director of extended campus and online studies, said the Somerville center would be different because of its proximity to Memphis.

“This location is nearer to a major urban area,” Cates said in a written statement. “UT Martin would look to expand offerings to meet the needs of a more diverse populous area.”

UT Martin leaders are particularly interested in credit and non-credit courses in agriculture.

“The training available could include agricultural sciences, economic and technology,” Cates said. “These include technology relative to precision agricultural operations as well as economic and other aspects of the agricultural environment.”

As in the other areas where it operates education centers, Cates said the Somerville area survey showed potential students who really weren’t looking for a college experience with residence halls and athletic programs. They also showed interest in affordable classes in the late afternoons and evening with some looking for non-credit courses like photography and foreign languages.

Meanwhile, the state-run technology center in Whiteville is already training workers for manufacturing jobs in the area. And programs developed by Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis specifically for workers at Blues City Brewery and the Electrolux plant have been touted by Memphis leaders as a breakthrough in the second stage of economic development once companies agree to build plants in the city.

“We want to create specific training programs for specific jobs, whatever that is,” Turner said. “We also want to put a school out here as well. … And have associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees available there at that facility.”