By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Bradley County Schools’ effort to turn an old manufacturing facility into a space where students can learn job skills tied for No. 5 on the Cleveland Daily Banner’s list of Top 10 Newsmakers for …
Bradley County Schools’ effort to turn an old manufacturing facility into a space where students can learn job skills tied for No. 5 on the Cleveland Daily Banner’s list of Top 10 Newsmakers for 2017.
For years, the former American Uniform facility on the corner of Parker and 23rd streets, near Ocoee Middle School, stood vacant. Now, it is soon to be the home of the county school system’s Partnerships in Industry and Education Center – or “PIE Center” for short.
The PIE Center is expected to house space for career and technical education programs. It will also have space which will be leased out to companies willing to partner with the school system to offer students opportunities such as internships or part-time employment.
It will also be home to GOAL Academy, the county alternative school, which will move there from its current location on Sunset Drive.
Director of Schools Dr. Linda Cash and other leaders with the county school system say this new facility will help provide more opportunities for students.
"The beauty is that we're taking kids and providing them with so many choices," Cash added. "We'll be allowing them to go right into the workforce, or to college."
Having already received an enthusiastic OK from the Bradley County Board of Education, Cash spent the early part of the year pitching the idea to the County Commission and other community leaders.
In March, the Commission’s Finance Committee discussed the possibility of buying the building for $2.2 million from then-owner Larry Armour. The committee voted 3-2 to recommend the purchase of the building.
In April, The Bradley County Commission voted 10-4 to purchase the building, to be financed over two years, with payment beginning July 2019.
Finance Chairman Milan Blake said he was at first skeptical of the plan, but after meeting with GOAL Academy Principal Kyle Page he saw the rationale behind the idea. He noted that not every student who graduates will go to college.
"This kind of facility, with the arrangements that they have, will prepare those kids for the next chapter in their lives," Blake said.
Commissioner Charlotte Peak said the proposed project is "groundbreaking" and has not been done before within the state of Tennessee.
Speaking from her experience in the construction industry, Peak said it has been difficult to find young people with the right job skills. She said creating the PIE Center was “a great opportunity,” because it could give industry leaders a place to pass on their knowledge.
"We have spent $3 million on an industrial park and will probably spend another $3 million," Commissioner Bill Winters added. "What good is that going to do that if we don't have the human beings that can go in there after high school and have a great job making good money for their families and stay here?"
Cash offered the Commission her thanks for “for believing in our students,” “for believing in an idea that can change our region” and “for being behind our school system.”
Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Farlow said later he thought the commissioners' actions would have a positive effect on local economic development.
With a 13-1 vote in April, Bradley County Commissioners voted to amend the building’s purchase agreement to clarify when the city school system would receive funding from the purchase, per state law.
With that business settled, school leaders turned their focus to the business of making the PIE Center a reality.
By July, plans for the PIE Center were fully underway. Though Bradley County Schools had not officially closed on the building yet, plans for its use were already in the works.
Page, who had been named the PIE Center’s project manager, explained students will be able to learn various career and technical education subjects taught by the county school system's teachers. Then, some of those students will get to gain real-life work experience, without ever leaving the property.
Bradley County Schools plans to allow companies to lease space in the facility for their daily operations. Companies will be required to rent with the intention of also offering internship or part-time job opportunities to high school students.
While companies would benefit from this partnership, Brittany Cannon, work-based learning coordinator for Bradley County Schools, stressed "students will drive every decision that we make."
School system officials said companies were beginning to express interest in the PIE Center. They were also reaching out to area companies to find out which job skills are the most in demand.
"I think it's important right now to be seeing what will most benefit the community," Cash said. "That kind of collaboration always changes what we're doing in terms of career and technical education."
By August, the school system had officially closed on the building and school leaders began looking at the next steps.
Architect David Hudson, of Chattanooga firm Artech Design Group, gave the county school board his suggestions on how to proceed.
He proposed renovating the approximately 280,000-square-foot building up to "shell condition." This would mean working on the roof, windows, HVAC system, electrical system, parking areas, common areas and more. "Shells" would be left for the companies moving in to renovate themselves.
Though he cautioned that none of his numbers were definite, Hudson said the project in its entirety could cost between $10 million and $15 million.
Kyle Page, project manager for the PIE Center, urged the board to remember there are multiple ways to fund this, including partnerships with other area school systems and revenues from companies leasing space there.
Later in August, the first steps toward transforming the facility into a space for students were completed.
When the school system closed on the facility July 27, it still contained remnants of American Uniform's operations. Local companies Santek Waste Services and Wright Brothers Construction donated their services to clean out the building, spending two days dismantling and removing items like old work benches and other unusable material.
"This is the first big milestone in starting the plans for the PIE Center," said Brittany Cannon, work-based learning coordinator for Bradley County Schools. "This really is great to see."
That month, the county school board also voted to enter into a formal contract with Hudson. In September, it also voted to hire architectural firm Michael Brady Inc., to design the GOAL Academy portion of the PIE Center.
In October, another big milestone came. The first company signed a lease to move into the PIE Center.
The county school board approved a lease with Chattanooga company Tranco Logistics during its Oct. 3 meeting. At the time, the company planned to begin building out its space in the PIE Center in January.
Also during the meeting, the board passed a master lease document, a version of which will be signed by future companies partnering with the PIE Center.
Since then, work has continued behind the scenes to finalize the design and lay the schedule of work still to be completed. Among the needed renovations mentioned to Commissioners before their votes were a needed roof repair and asbestos abatement.
As design details continue to emerge and more companies consider signing leases, school leaders remain optimistic about what the PIE Center will do.
"We are in a place of starting on something that could change the course of things for students in our community," said Page.
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