Comer Barn could be deeded to schools for Ag-STEM Center

County and school leaders will vote on a proposal for a 39-acre Ag/STEM Center for Sumner County Schools later this month.

Plans for a 39-acre Agricultural-STEM Learning Center that would be operated and owned by Sumner County Schools where the Comer Barn is currently located were unveiled at two separate meetings on Tuesday.

The 1930’s-era barn between Gallatin and Hendersonville was deeded to Sumner County by Rogers Group, who operates a quarry adjacent to the property, in 2016. The agreement included an approximately five-acre easement. The county also leases the historic Comer House next to the barn from Rogers Group for office space for the Sumner County Tourism office.

In a proposal presented to the county’s Historic Commission and later in the day to the Sumner County Board of Education, Rogers Group would donate approximately 42 acres to the county. The county would keep the three to four acres that the Comer House sits on for the tourism office and transfer the remaining property, including the barn, to the school system.

County Commission members voted in August 2020 to appropriate $500,000 toward preserving the deteriorating barn with half the money coming from a state grant and the other half coming from the county’s hospital fund earmarked for economic development.

The county has spent approximately $8,700 of that money on repairs and consulting fees, according to District 6 Commissioner Deanne DeWitt, who has been spearheading an effort to preserve the barn.

DeWitt presented a resolution to Historic Commission members on Tuesday that would allow for the transfer of the barn and property to the school system contingent on the school system’s approval and the donation of the land from Rogers Group.

The full County Commission will vote on the resolution Sept. 20.

According to the resolution, the Sumner County school system leads Tennessee in both STEM-accredited schools and the number of Tennessee Pathways programs. It has certified Agriculture CTE Career & Technical Education programs in seven high schools as well as the largest K-12 agriculture program in the state at Hendersonville High school.

“The Sumner County School System has the existing infrastructure and personnel to maintain both the structure and surrounding property in a cost-effective manner,” the resolution states.

The school system could use the Ag/STEM Learning Center for elementary field trips, middle school camps, high school projects, agriculture technology, gardening, horticulture, irrigation, storm water management, and other projects, according to the resolution.

The center would be available for community functions following the same protocols in place for existing school property. It would also support stronger partnerships with FFA, 4-H and the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension office for competition and exhibition space.

DeWitt unveiled a draft design for the facility that included an orchard, an education/restroom pavilion, a greenhouse and a large parking lot in Phase 1 of the project.

A few hours later, Director of Schools Del Phillips presented the proposal at a study session of the Sumner County Board of Education.

Phillips said he’s had discussions with DeWitt, Rogers Group leaders and others over the last six to eight months about the project.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity and timing that won’t come back around,” he said.

Phillips said the school district could use federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to pay for Phase 1 of the project. He estimated Phase 1 to cost between $3 to $3.5 million.

Phillips said that by law the school district could use up to $4 million in ESSER funds for “indirect costs.”

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the school district has received three rounds of ESSER funding totaling around $49 million. The school district has an annual budget of around $300 million.

The Board of Education will vote on the proposal at its next meeting on Sept. 21.