Noland walks between the Millennium Centre, which the university is purchasing, and the construction site of the Martin Center for the Arts. Drone photography by Abbie Forrest
by Scott Robertson
East Tennessee State University is the largest institution of higher education in the region, and has been so for more than a century. Founded in 1911 to train teachers to educate the citizens of Northeast Tennessee, the university now employs 2,600 people and utilizes a budget of $400 million.
Recently, the university has experienced something of a renaissance of purpose. Driven in part by the opportunities created by the Ballad Health merger and in part by the broadening interest in regionalism, the university is expanding its role as an economic player.
Dr. Brian Noland, president of ETSU, recently explained the institutional ambition behind actions including the purchase of the Millennium Centre, the creation of the Martin Center for the arts, the creation of new partnerships within the broader region and the support for a regional economic development approach, saying, “(ETSU) is a major enterprise from an employment perspective in the region, but then it’s an engine that moves employment patterns and economic development patterns moving forward.”
The Business Journal sat down with Noland Aug. 22, the day before students began arriving for fall semester, to discuss the changing role of his institution in the region. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
The Business Journal: Let’s just begin by talking about how ETSU is growing.
Dr. Brian Noland: We are growing in a number of ways. Let’s talk about physical infrastructure first. We have not built a new building on the main campus – we’ll get to the V.A. in a little bit – but the last new academic that was built on this campus was the library. Prior to that the last new academic building that was built on this campus was the dome. People don’t think of the dome as an academic building, but it was at the time because the med school was in there. So, if you look at academic investments made by the state of Tennessee in our university, it hasn’t happened in decades. It’s been a generation and a half since academic buildings were built on the main campus.
So, part of the growth that’s occurring here presently is the academic building that it the Martin Center for the Arts – the fine and performing arts facility. That’s growth. That’s a $52 million project. You’ve got construction that’s there. You have local employees that have jobs because of that development. You have the concrete, steel and brick. That’s growth. Then you have the Culp Center, a $40-some million project. That building is being transformed. Then you have all the minor capital projects from sidewalk repairs to steps. There are lots of things happening from a physical perspective on campus that haven’t happened in a long time. The physical infrastructure became a little dated. We now have the opportunity to breathe some life into that physical infrastructure. As soon as we get the Culp Center and the Martin Center done, we will turn right around and break ground on Lamb Hall which is the academic for the health sciences, public health and rehab. That’s growth.
We’ve made investments on the V.A. campus. Stanton-Gerber opened almost 20 years ago. We just broke the seal on building 60, the Center for Interprofessional Health. We’ll cut the ribbon in a few weeks. So we’re trying to add some new academic infrastructure and space so we have state-of-the-art teaching, research and clinical facilities for our faculty. That’s going to position us to grow.
From an enrollment perspective, I’ll be honest, from many perspectives we’re treading water. When I arrived we had 15,530 students. This fall we’ll have 14,800-and-some. We’re trying to get back to where we were. Our goal is 18,000 students through on-campus, off-campus and online, but in order to grow, we have to grow new programs. So, much of the academic infrastructure that’s coming into play, particularly the Millennium Centre, is going to allow us to start new programs that will grow enrollment. You’ll see us start cyber. You’ll see us start a program in healthcare informatics. You’ll see us look at some doctoral programs in the health sciences, particularly in the medical device area. The ability to start those new programs is predicated on the new facilities and all of this is linked in together.
I was in Gilbreath Hall the other day. In 1910, somebody designed Gilbreath Hall. That building is still here, and we’re using a building that’s more than 100 years old. The decisions we’re making around investments and buildings aren’t just investments for today. They are investments for the generations after that. We’re trying to set the stage for long-term sustained growth. The ‘but’ is that the landscape is fluid. Every day you pick up the paper and read about contractions in the market, loss of population, demographics working against us, higher education is extremely competitive, academic programs are closing – within our area we have had private institutions close – so for us to be competitive in the marketplace, it takes investments. That’s what we’re trying to do. We just hope the investments pay off.
BJ: You just touched on it briefly, but I’d like to go a little deeper into why the Millennium Centre purchase makes sense for ETSU now.
Noland: I wish we had had the opportunity to take over operations of the Millennium Centre years ago. It’s a wonderful building. It’s been managed and staffed. I’ve been to dinner after dinner there, many with you. The food is outstanding. But the structure from a business perspective wasn’t beneficial financially for the city and it wasn’t beneficial for us financially. The hiccup had always been in the past that we had one food service provider that was different than the food service provider across the street. But when we all went to Sodexo, that gave us the opportunity to look at each other and ask, ‘Is there a better way we can do this?’ That’s what we’re working through now. It will take the next month to month-and-a-half to settle all that out.
If you can adjust the business plan of operating the building then that puts the institution in a different perspective. If you look at who has used the building from a lease perspective – and I can’t remember all the lease numbers off the top of my head – but I would bet half of all activity that took place at the Millennium Center last year was us. So now this allows us to invest those resources in ourselves, lowers the cost associated with the activity that’s sponsored there, and we can continue to keep the building open for the community as it has been. Then once the Culp Center comes back online, we will have some new opportunities there.
If you go back to the early 1970s, the Culp Center was the convention home for this region. So if we take the Culp, if we take Freedom Hall, if we take the Martin Center, if we take the dome, and we look at all of these places as assignable space, that opens up opportunities. If you want to have a big event with 2,000 people, like a home and garden show, you’ve got the dome. So back to your question on why the Millennium Centre now, the stars aligned – by taking this action now, it will allow resource reallocation for the campus. It will allow savings for student groups who are leasing the facility. We can continue to book and promote from a public perspective.
Once the Culp opens we can shift and backfill with these computer science and IT programs. We have the No. 1 computer science program in the state. Right now, it’s strewn across campus in multiple facilities. To move that to a state-of-the-art building, to launch cyber, to launch healthcare informatics, that gives computer science a chance to really blossom. The digital media lab is already there, so all those pieces hang together. We would love to have been in a position to acquire the building a number of years ago, but this is the right place at the right time.
BJ: You said something when you and Pete (Peterson, city manager of Johnson City) met the media to talk about the sale – you said the university would make a single payment for the entire ($5.8 million) amount, “and then act accordingly.” If it were as simple as just cutting a check, I don’t think you would have added that extra phrase. So what are the “according actions?”
Noland: Well, part of this is wrapped up in the approval processes at the state level and at the board level. Our board will meet in the third week of September. Ultimately the board will have to authorize that expenditure. They gave me authority at the last board meeting to execute that deal. So, we will pull $2 million out of reserves. We will take the other resources out of revenue available at the institution, but then the hope is that ultimately we have a conversation on campus about parking. I’d like to see us make some investments in parking that would allow us then to potentially bond out the garage, but then to bond out another garage and to roll that altogether into one conversation. So as the students return and the faculty return to campus, one of the things we want to talk about this fall is making some enhancements in parking which could require some additional investments on behalf of faculty, staff and students to build a new garage across the street from McDonald’s. That then wraps into the Millennium Centre conversation.
BJ: I’ve never known a university that didn’t need or want more parking.
Noland: Well, we don’t have a parking problem. We have a walking problem and we have a construction problem. So right now, we have lost significant spaces due to the work on the Culp Center. As soon as the Culp is done, we will lose significant spaces due to Lamb Hall. If we had the chance to draw a campus, you could draw a campus with a lot more green space and a lot less hard surface. To do that then you have to add spaces, which leads to the second garage.
Noland: Yeah. We will have the keys to the building turned over to us, if everything stays as it is, next year. We’ll have the first full performances in the building at some point in the late spring of 2020. So, I anticipate that the building will be done in late 2019 or early 2020, but then we have to learn how to use the technology in it. We have to get all the lighting technology, the sound technology, etc., ready before we launch the first schedule. In 2020 we will have our first performances, then we will roll out our first full performance schedule. We remain right in the queue for that activity, but we want to build in a little buffer because the last thing we want is to schedule “Cats” for March only to find some technical hiccup on the lighting and the sound. The last thing we want to do is book a full slate of shows and not be 100 percent ready. But we will open the building with a full fanfare in 2020. I just can’t tell you if it’s going to be March or May.
BJ: Going back a few months, Eastman CEO Mark Costa made the statement that the only economic development Eastman will support will be regional efforts. Ballad’s Alan Levine stood up and said, in essence, “amen.” Others have been advocating for that and taking action. In the months since then, very publicly the three Chambers of Commerce have come onboard as proponents of regionalism. As this effort picks up steam, what role does ETSU look to play and what do you see as potential first steps?
Noland: I think we have been one of the leaders of the effort. Some people have called us Switzerland. We’re the neutral ground because we are already in all these communities. I think we play a leadership role. I think we play a leadership role in focusing attention on the importance of regionalism. I try to focus that attention on the importance of regionalism anytime there are more than 20 people in a room when I say, ‘East Tennessee State University was founded in 1911 for the singular reason to improve the quality of life for the people of the region.’
We have made some actions in the last few years that are regional in nature. You know, the action to open the Overmountain Center in Gray was a regional decision. It wasn’t a popular decision, but it was a decision we made to benefit the health care of the people of the region. Our decision to move into the higher education village in Kingsport – we were not there a number of years ago, but we moved in about six years ago. That was a regional decision. Then there’s a leadership role we can play. We have experts across a number of areas here. From a data perspective, we can inform the conversation in terms of what’s happening in terms of demographic trends, healthcare trends, employment and labor market trends – there’s a powerful role we can play as a thought leader within the region.
One of the things that’s central for me in the regional effort is just – and I don’t know how to do this – but how do we get past saying, ‘we want to focus on regionalism’ to truly doing something regional? I’m going to be a dork for a second – back when I taught political theory, there was Locke and Hobbes. Everybody’s going to have to put Hobbes to the side and develop a little bit of a Lockian philosophy that people will give some of what they have to the whole so that as a social compact, society as a whole moves forward. To date, we have had a very Hobbesian philosophy – ‘This is what’s best for me. That is what’s best for you, and never the two shall meet.’ Everyone is going to have to give a little and recognize that for this region to grow, we have to grow as a region. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. We’ve talked about this before. But when we battle to the death over which city or town gets a particular restaurant, nobody wins.
I’ve been driving around a lot. I’ve only seen one crane in Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, and it’s on our campus. That’s a sign that our economy is dying. For our economy to grow, we have to come together and say, ‘Let’s go push this region and what we have to offer. The MSAs – there’s a lot associated with it, and I don’t know what’s the first lever to pull. We don’t know what to call ourselves. Are we the Tri-Cities? Are we Northeast Tennessee? Are we East Tennessee? Are we Upper Northeast Tennessee? I don’t know how you can be regional when you don’t know what to call yourself. You know, seven years ago at ETSU we had 132 logos. We didn’t know what our colors were. We had to try to spend some time trying to figure out who we were before we ever could then plan to move forward. I think part of the challenge for us as a region is to figure out who we are – what do we want to call ourselves? Are we the Overmountain Region? Are we the Tri-Cities? Are we Northeast Tennessee? We have to set aside the past and say, ‘If we don’t come up with a unified future, we will be left behind.’
I was in Blount County last week. There are more than 3,000 job openings in Blount County because the industrial development board, the Chambers and the business community all came together and said, ‘we need to move.’ They brought Siemens, Denso, ProNova – win after win after win. We’ve not been able to do that here, and I think part of the university’s role is through the power of data, resources, information and research to really set on the table, here’s where we are, and here’s where the competition has passed us by.
BJ: If you look at other universities around the country to see how they’re taking economic development into their own missions – research licensing as a boost for entrepreneurship is one way. ETSU has a research foundation, but it hasn’t been a big –
BJ: Other universities are involved in specific talent development initiatives, partnerships with industry, even operating economic development offices in some instances. Of those things and others, how do you see ETSU in those areas?
Noland: In particular, research is the next frontier. It has been a significant point of conversation in the Ballad merger conversations. Alan Levine (Ballad CEO) has discussed it at length. The board has discussed it at length in the last board meeting. They have charged us to bring forward a research and ECD (economic and community development) plan to the board that looks at, first, do we have the infrastructure in place to support the investments Ballad is getting ready to make in us. Do we have the right volume of people? Are our institutional review boards set up right? Do we have the sufficient bandwidth from an Internet access capability to tap into the supercomputers in Knoxville for big data-related issues. We just implemented a 10-gig pipe this fall. We’re going to move from about three gigs of bandwidth to 10. One of the reasons we’re going at that speed is to set the stage for research. So you will see us in a tactical way make investments in research. Ballad will make investments in research. We will have cluster hires. All that then will help spin up business and industry. We’ve not done that because the bulk of our efforts to date have all been clinical. But now how do we take those clinical enterprises and associated downstream research and economic development opportunities from that?
We have a research foundation, but it is internal in its focus. There is not a lot of patent activity. The good thing is we have the academic programs that allow us to move at a quicker clip than if we didn’t have those programs. We have a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. We have a med school. We have a pharmacy school. We have programs. Now we just need to find a way to orient some of that activity toward research productivity and research output. With respect to ECD, we’re not the Chamber of Commerce, but we do play a role in economic and community development. I mentioned the work that Audrey Depelteau is doing at the Innovation Lab with the Soft Landings designations, the business incubation space – you know, small businesses can start up there with reduced rent. So, we have some things that are helping to shape and marshal economic development.
I think, ultimately, we need a regional economic development entity – not five, six or 20, but one – like they have in Blount County that can carry the force of the region. ETSU should play a role in that, and we look forward to helping to support that if that ever comes to fruition.