JOHNSON CITY – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee arrived in Johnson City to make a special announcement at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine on Tuesday.

In front of a large crowd of campus officials, dignitaries from the public and private sector, as well as medical students, Lee announced the creation of a new Center for Rural Health Research to be housed at the College of Public Health.

During his address, Lee announced ETSU will receive a $1.5 million grant for the implementation of the center for the initial year, then a recurring $750,000 annual investment for support of further operations at the center.

“I grew up in a rural community,” said Lee, who proposed the appropriations, which were approved by the Tennessee General Assembly. “I know the economics of the rural communities are important.

“If the rural communities fail, Tennessee fails.”

In addition to Lee’s announcement, Ballad Health pledged its health system will contribute $15 million to the center over the next 10 years, the largest in the school’s history. The collaboration’s goal is to forge a partnership among Ballad Health, ETSU leadership; local health care agencies and national health experts to identify and implement new strategies improve health care in rural communities.

“ETSU has a proven record in helping to solve problems, particularly on health care, so this is a natural fit for this doctoral and research institution,” Lee said.

Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine said several factors must be identified to put a stop to the pattern of inter-generational cycles of behavior contributing to poor health – which could lead to inadequate college and career-readiness outcomes.

“Children can’t learn if they’re sick, or not showing up for school at all,” he said. “We believe we can be a world leader in improving the quality of life for rural areas in Tennessee and elsewhere.”

Lee said workforce readiness is a major policy initiative for his administration, and believes the center is a major step toward succeeding in that goal.

“In order for Tennessee to truly lead the nation, we must ensure we help all Tennesseans succeed, particularly in our rural areas,” he said. “One way to help our rural areas is to improve the health outcomes in those areas.

“Ballad Health and ETSU are leading in this effort, and today’s announcement reflects the state’s commitment to work with them to find solutions.”

To run the center, Dr. Randy Wykoff was named the founding director of the center. He will continue to serve as the dean of the College of Public Health, a position he has held since 2006.

Wykoff lauded the public officials who came together to appropriate the funding for the founding of the center.

“I see elected officials who know more than anyone what a drug-free and healthy population can do for this community,” he said. “So many of the challenges are inter-generational, father to father, son to son, brother to brother. Our challenge is to break this inter-generational chain.

“If we pick up those who are most disadvantaged, the entire area will benefit.”

Dr. Brian Noland, ETSU president, said Tuesday’s announcement was a historic day for the institution, and that only good could come from the school’s partnership with Ballad Health – and other collaborations soon to be developed for the future.

“Appalachia is going to lead in developing solutions to many of the challenges facing our rural communities,” Noland said. “This is not a Tennessee problem. It is a national one.

“I’m pleased that ETSU will lead this academic, research-based effort to solve some of our nation’s most important problems.”