KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Leaders hoping to develop a regional dental clinic and training site in Kingsport had cause to celebrate Friday: a $250,000 donation from Delta Dental of Tennessee’s Smile180 Foundation that will be used to purchase equipment.

When it opens, the “Kingsport Dental Clinic of the Appalachian Highlands” will serve patients who may not be able to afford care elsewhere and will feature 12 dental chairs. Leaders of the public-private joint initiative also hope to provide training opportunities for students when it opens next year.

“Our goal is not only establishing the clinic, which is what we’re talking about today, but eventually moving us to where we can be a somewhat of a satellite campus for a dental college,” Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt said.

Plans for the clinic were formalized last fall when the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman (BMA) voted to sign a memorandum of understanding with Ballad Health, East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC).

With a high need for dental care to serve a growing population the donation marks a key moment in the creation of something leaders say will create a turning point in the community.

“There’s a need throughout rural Tennessee for additional dentists, and also to replace those who are retiring,” McCartt said. “This is kind of that beginning of that journey and to reach our ultimate vision of that dental college here in Kingsport.”

Due to limited capacity in other places in the state, the program will help by increasing dental school classes to address a local and statewide shortage of dentists.

“The facilities in Nashville and Memphis are not big enough to handle what’s going to be growth in this field,” said Phil Wenk, CEO of Delta Dental of Tennessee.

Regional leaders said they are working towards a better quality of life for residents and potential students in the Tri-Cities region for the long run.

“Long term, the idea is there will be more fourth-year students coming to this area to do some of their clinical work here and grow in their practice,” Wenk said.

The clinic will be staffed in partnership with Ballad and include postgraduate residents completing one-year general dentistry programs, as well as students from UTHSC’s dentistry programs and ETSU dental hygiene students completing clinical rotations. Renovation work expanding the clinic’s space is expected to begin by June for a mid-2024 opening.