Dwight Murphy, president of Tennessee College of Applied Technology Oneida/Huntsville, chats with TCAT Jacksboro president Debbie Petree and State Senator Ken Yager during a grant celebration on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 | Ben Garrett/IH

HUNTSVILLE — State government officials, economic development professionals and education administrators from Nashville to Knoxville and points between gathered at Tennessee College of Applied Technology’s Oneida/Huntsville campus here on Wednesday, and all seemed to echo the same sentiment: a $1.5 million federal grant will represent an unprecedented investment in workforce development in Scott and neighboring counties.

The funding — totaling $1,546,000 — was received from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Congress’s grant arm for portions of 13 states that represent a large swath of the Southern Appalachians. It represents a unique two-state partnership that will benefit eight counties in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“This brought together four of the poorest counties in Kentucky (Wayne, McCreary, Clay and Whitley) and four of the poorest counties in Tennessee (Scott, Campbell, Fentress and Morgan),” TCAT Oneida/Huntsville President Dwight Murphy said. “It brought together three colleges that had never worked together before. It blurred the state lines.”

In addition to the eight counties involved, the grant encompasses three post-secondary educational institutions: TCAT Oneida/Huntsville, TCAT Jacksboro and Somerset Community College.

Murphy credited two people with spearheading the grant effort — Elaine Kohrman with Somerset Community College, and TCAT Oneida/Huntsville Student Success Coach Noah Duncan. He said that work on the massive grant application began on February 28, and was completed by the April 19 deadline.

Brooxie Carlton, the Tennessee Department of Economic Development’s deputy assistant commissioner who oversees the ARC program in this state, admitted that she told one of her colleagues upon learning of TCAT’s plans, “I don’t know if they can pull it off.” 

But, as it turned out, they did.

“Putting together this application is a feat,” Carlton said Wednesday. “This project fits in so well with what ARC wants to do and everything Governor (Bill) Lee is doing in Tennessee.”

The governor, who took office in January, made workforce development through technical education a central theme of his campaign last year, and has emphasized it from a policy standpoint since assuming office.

The grant funding is part of the ARC’s new POWER Initiative — Partnerships for Opportunities and Workforce and Economic Revitalization. The POWER Initiative is aimed at pumping federal resources into communities that have been affected by job losses in the coal industry. Scott County — which was at the forefront of the Appalachian coal mining industry in the 1960s and 1970s — and its neighboring counties fit the bill.

The funding’s implementation will be multi-faceted, with various components, not all of which have been detailed publicly. At Wednesday’s luncheon announcing the grant, Murphy said that 10 high schools in the region will receive updated computer technology equipment. The funds will be used to expand some technical education programs — such as training and certification for EMTs and paramedics. One key component will be workforce development through inmate programs, involving inmates from the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg and local jails. TCAT announced last week that it has appointed Chris Peters to a newly-created position that will advance that initiative.

The TCAT initiative is one of multiple projects in the community that is aimed at boosting the work force by helping incarcerated citizens land productive jobs. A recently-announced S.T.A.N.D. program is using inmates from the Scott County Jail to fill available positions at local factories, including Tennier Industries.

Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, who was on hand for Wednesday’s announcement, applauded those efforts.

“If a man or woman is incarcerated, they have paid their price. They’re coming out of a place to which we hope they never return,” he said. “We want them to gain a skill. Employees are coming to me every day and saying, ‘Let’s give people a second chance.’”

State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston, echoed Fleischmann’s sentiments.

“We need to talk about the recidivism rate, which is 51 percent statewide, but it can be as high as 81 percent in local jails,” Yager said. “This program will help fix that problem.”

Yager — who echoed Carlton’s remarks about the grant fitting the governor’s emphasis on technical education for high school graduates and adult learners — said another key impact of the new educational initiatives will be the opportunity to address under-employment and income inequality in the region.

“We’ve done a good job getting our unemployment rates down,” Yager said. “But that ol’ poverty level is still way too high. There are too many under-employed folks in our community.

“I hope this program will help address income inequality,” he added. “If we can take a step to fix that then we have taken a big step forward to make lives better in our district.”

Dr. Carey Castle, president of Somerset Community College, echoed Yager’s remarks.

“This is for people who, maybe someday they want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a politician, but right now they just need a way to eat and a way to raise their families,” he said.

State Representative Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, said the potentially revolutionary grant award wasn’t just a coincidence for the impoverished Tennessee-Kentucky region.

“This wasn’t just happenstance. God played a major role in this,” Keisling said.

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s luncheon, Murphy said that his team — as well as teams at TCAT-Jacksboro and Somerset Community College — are ready to start implementing the programs that will be created by the grant dollars.

“Committees waste hours,” he said. “We don’t need committees. We just need to get this done. Let’s get to work.”