Workforce Alliance to Transform Empty Building into Job Training Engine

In April 2011, South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance paid General Motors Corp. $3.4 million to purchase the automaker's Northfield building at the former Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill.

Kevin Litwin
On Friday, September 9, 2011 - 09:01
Columbia, TN

In Spring Hill, a virtually empty building is being transformed into one of the region's greatest potential education and job training assets.

In February 2011, South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance paid General Motors Corp. $3.4 million to lease the space with the option to purchase the automaker's Northfield building at the former Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill. The spacious Northfield building was where GM housed executives and conducted training sessions prior to shutting down its Spring Hill assembly process in 2009.

The Northfield building is two stories and features an impressive 320,000 square feet of space – more than half as large as the famed AT&T “Batman” building in downtown Nashville – and immediately after leasing Northfield, SCTWA began scheduling classes that are now open to the public. At least 100,000 square feet will be dedicated to workforce and career development, while the remaining square footage is being marketed for back-office and business accelerator usage.

“That was really nice of GM to lease us Northfield with the option to buy for only $3.4 million because the building is worth much, much more,” says Jan McKeel, executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance. “We received a $5 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development to pay for the building, and the other $1.6 million is helping to pay operating costs.”

New Name, Same Building

The building is now called the Workforce Development & Conference Center at Northfield, or Northfield for short. Since the Saturn plant shutdown, the building has been used primarily to train unemployed GM workers for new careers in medical record coding, green jobs technology, health information technology and nursing.

“Now, we are actually starting with five academies that are available to the entire public, with training in advanced manufacturing, health care, hospitality arts, public safety and information technology,” McKeel says. “We don't call ourself a vocational school anymore. Our Northfield campus is classified as a technology center.”

30 Classrooms, Six Labs

McKeel says an early goal for the building is to have Columbia State Community College and the Technology Training Center at Hohenwald and at Pulaski offer courses and supply classroom training, and then hopefully universities like Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State, Belmont, Lipscomb and others will eventually do the same. There are also plans to ultimately offer classes to help high school students earn college credits.

The Workforce Development & Conference Center at Northfield is equipped with an advanced manufacturing lab, 30 classrooms, six computer labs, a 10-bay automotive technology garage and 91 conference rooms. There is also a 250-seat cafeteria with full commercial kitchen and a 100-seat theater. The campus unofficially opened to the general public April 11-17 with a six-day Tennessee Solar Institute course that taught the basics of solar installation and photovoltaic technology.

“Northfield came to us wire-ready, so it's easy to host classroom sessions in any part of the building,” McKeel says.

And Another $8.4 Million

In addition to the funds for the Northfield agreement, SCTWA was also approved for an additional $8.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“That money will really help us launch the advanced professional programs we want to offer students,” McKeel says.


Kevin Litwin is the author of Crazy Lucky Dead and a freelance feature writer with a career spanning more than 20 years.