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Premier Communication Technologies celebrates ribbon cutting for Rogersville offices

Premier Communication Technologies, located at 133 Highway 70S in Rogersville, celebrated its new office with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 18 in conjunction with the Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce.

Premier Communication Technologies is a full-service telecommunication company bringing fiber optics to East Tennessee communities to deliver high speed internet, telephone, and television.

Premier currently contracts with Holston Connect, Powell Valley Electric, and other companies nationwide bringing services to both urban and rural areas.

In addition to providing telecommunication services, Premier will be partnering with the Hawkins County Schools CTE (Career and Technical Education) program to provide education and training for upper-level vocational students.

Students will graduate with a certification to immediately enter the workforce with job specific knowledge and experience.

“I am humbled and blessed to have started a thriving business with my brother in a field that I’m very passionate about, and also to have the opportunity to employ so many wonderful people within the communities we serve,” said Keith Bowers, Founder/CEO.

Founder/COO Lance Cookenour added, “I am very honored to be part of the growing business my brother and I started a year ago. The opportunities I have been blessed with, such as training local high school students in the CTE program, are very rewarding knowing I have helped someone have a promising career in a field with continued growth.”

Luella's Gift Market: For the person who has everything

During Heritage Days in downtown Rogersville I took lots of pictures of Luella’s Gift Market and posted them on My Rogersville.

The place was hopping with shoppers looking at all the quality merchandise. Recently I went back and got to know a couple of the lovely ladies at Luella’s, including Sandy Haun Larkin and Caitlin Winburn. Abigail Daniels I had met previously.

Brought a couple of friends Jimmie Moody Salyer and Valerie Mallett Goins along this time. We had a blast posing for pictures and enjoying the Christmas atmosphere.

This is the store for the person who has everything. So many excellent gift ideas. They offer a wide variety of brands including Pandora. Brighton, Hobo purses, Nora Fleming, Life is Good, Ronaldo, Bogg Bags, Brumate, Lily Pulitzer, Kate Spade, and Stationary. There are candles, home decor local merchandise, gourmet foods, and specialties, baby items and seasonal items.

Luella’s Gift Market at 117 E. Main Street in Rogersville opened Feb. 7, 2003 in the UGO Shopping Center, and moved downtown in August of 2014. They are open Monday-Friday 11-4 Sat 11-3.

It’s such a fun place to roam around and discover all the treasures. I found an undercover unicorn bracelet and embossed napkins for my mom to use during Thanksgiving. Jimmie and I went upstairs and tried on Thelma and Louise caps and found lots of interesting objects as well as wearable merchandise.

Jimmie said,”Luella’s has the most unique ideas for unusual gifts that are usable like the hats we tried on for you and bestie. Also the best collection of sweet bracelets with meanings attached. Going back for one of their Christmas wreaths. Love the Pandora/Brighton jewelry with all the wonderful choices.”

Valerie had us all trying on a buttery soft jacket from Good Hart by Matilda Jane. Caitlin was a perfect model as well as Jimmie. Valerie said,”Gosh you know I absolutely love Luella’s. It’s my go to for any gifts or for lots of decorations around my house. Also I have considered them friends for a long time. Love all the brands they carry and they gift wrap! Can’t beat Luella’s.”

Everything was tastefully decorated throughout the shop and Caitlin was busily adding more plus the gift bags are very special. Sandy and Caitlin were a pleasure to meet. The shop is definitely a reflection of the women who run it. While it was raining outside we were all quite cozy in this wonderful world of sparkly. shiny, pretty things.

Any time you need a special gift come on in and look around to see what catches your eye. You certainly won’t be disappointed with endless options to choose from. I loved the layout of the place with 3 floors. The staircase is beautiful and perfect for a photo op. There’s a special feel of Southern charm mixed with big city flair in this slice of shopping Heaven. It will knock your socks off.

It’s tempting to stay in the jewelry section but there’s so much more waiting to be explored. This is an absolute must if you are in town. There’s a back entrance also with parking available.

I went back the next day to say hello and got swept in by Sandy who had a lot to say,”I do want to thank my customers for continued support. I have had a lot going on personally. I apologize that i have not been in the store to say hello. But I do love Rogersville and the people in it. I’m looking forward to 2022. Looks like downtown is going to grow and be booming.”

You can reach them at 423-272-7656 and check them out online as well.

Grants will help Hawkins County Schools train machinists in new CTE program

If you have been reading these columns, or spoken to me in the past few months, you are likely already aware that a new Career and Technical Education (CTE) program is coming to Cherokee High School as early as August of 2022.

After working with several local industry professionals it became apparent that there is a need for trained machinists in Hawkins County.

There is just one problem with that, that program is quite expensive to start due to the cost of specialized equipment needed.

How expensive? We estimated $250,000 as a baseline just for equipment like manual mills and lathes, CNC mills and lathes, and bandsaws. That figure does not include the cost of tooling for the equipment such as bits, cutters, and blades.

It does not include the cost of minor renovations to the shop space to reroute electrical, compressed air, and water. It does not include the cost of furniture for the shop in the form of work tables, shelves, and cabinets. It does not include the cost of computer workstations with software to program CNC equipment. So what is the bottom line? Likely somewhere closer to $400,000.

Each year Hawkins County Schools receives federal funds earmarked for CTE thanks to the Carl Perkins Act. Those funds are vital to our ability to equip and maintain our CTE programs, but unfortunately, the funds are finite.

We typically receive around $160,000 in Perkins funds annually. We would not be able to start a machine tool program with Perkins funding alone. We needed to locate other funding sources, likely in the form of grants.

This is where the partnerships you’ve likely heard me talk about come into play. Thanks to the help of our partnerships with state agencies and post-secondary institutions, we have secured the funds needed for this new program offering.

Hawkins County Schools will receive a Supporting Postsecondary Access in Rural Communities (SPARC) grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). The grant is awarded to distressed and at-risk counties in the state, as designated by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) index of economic status.

Hawkins County is one of 39 counties in Tennessee to receive an investment from the 2021 cohort of SPARC grant recipients. The third round of SPARC grant funding is a total investment of over $5 million.

SPARC is a targeted grant program for high school and adult learner populations with a specific focus on Career & Technical Education (CTE). SPARC aims to address the associated education and workforce factors that designate them as economically distressed and to remove common postsecondary education access barriers in rural counties.

The funds allocated to Hawkins County, $124,700, will be used to make minor renovations to the shop at Cherokee High School, purchase shop furniture, and the tooling required for the machine tool shop.

SPARC funds will also be used to upgrade the nursing skills lab at Volunteer High School to become a testing facility for students working toward earning the Certified Nursing Assistant credential.

The equipment needed to open the machine tool program at Cherokee High School will be purchased with funding from another grant. Hawkins County Schools is also partnered with TCAT Morristown for a Governor’s Initiative for Vocational Education (GIVE) grant.

The GIVE grant application was submitted by TCAT Morristown on behalf of the Five Rivers Partnership for Future Ready Pathways (FRP2) which is a consortium of the K-12 systems in the service area of TCAT Morristown. The total grant award, announced last Thursday, was $1,000,000.

That total includes projects and activities in all districts in the service area, including the machine tool startup at Cherokee High School. Specifically, $287,000 is set aside to purchase 14 pieces of equipment including manual and CNC lathes and mills, and bandsaws.

As a result, when the machine tool program is up and running, students at Cherokee will have access to a state of the art machine shop as they begin their training. Hawkins County Schools is partnered with TCAT Morristown to allow students to earn postsecondary credit while enrolled in high school.

Students who matriculate through the first two courses in the machine tool program will have the option to become dual enrollment students with TCAT during their third and fourth course in the machine tool program. During that time, students will earn high school credit, but will also accumulate hours toward a Machinist I certificate.

Students who complete two semesters of dual enrollment coursework can effectively cut off about two months from a postsecondary program that takes about 16 months to complete.

I want to take a moment to thank a few folks who are instrumental in our ability to capitalize on these opportunities. Dr. Brandon Hudson and Mr. Mitch Currey with THEC have been very helpful and accommodating as we navigated the SPARC application process.

This will be the second chance I have had to work with Brandon and Mitch on a SPARC grant project; two years ago, thanks to the application completed by Dr. Byron Booker at Cherokee, we used SPARC funding to upgrade the nursing skills lab at Cherokee to become a testing site for CMA exams. I also want to thank Mr. Chris Edmonds, Business and Industry Coordinator with TCAT Morristown, the chief architect of the GIVE grant application.

The GIVE grant application is an extensive process that requires hundreds of hours of research and writing. Chris is very humble and is always quick to point out that the application is a team effort, which is true; however, his role in the process is far more intensive than the rest of us who pitched in along the way.

I’m excited about this program startup, and about the improvements for the nursing skills lab at Volunteer. Our students will certainly benefit from these expansions and improvements.

Our community will also benefit as a result when our current students are able to earn industry credentials and post-secondary credit before they graduate high school, and by virtue of that will be ready to enter the workforce sooner and will do so having already mastered important skills. This is a great deal for Hawkins County, and we will see it pay dividends for many years to come.

Customized online shopping possible with augmented reality, artificial intelligence

Ah, online shopping—the great, frictionless experience that has evolved to allow shoppers to tap a button or two and summon new stuff to their home in a matter of days (or...even hours).

As the internet has grown more sophisticated, the popularity of at-home on-screen shopping has also risen steadily. And while the death of brick-and-mortar sales has been mostly overhyped, online shopping certainly has become more popular due to the pandemic. For apparel in particular: 35.6% of apparel was bought online in 2020, compared to 16.7% a decade ago.

The largest problem with that is that people like to try before they buy—especially with apparel. In pre-pandemic times, the biggest reason shoppers would visit stores instead of smashing that Add to Cart button was to touch and try on apparel.

Obviously, this hasn’t stopped many millions of people worldwide from buying clothes online. But the inability to try things on—to imagine what that new dress, or pair of sneakers, or jeans will look like—is a challenge. The fitting room of your local department store may be dingy and dimly lit, but it exists. And it helps you make a more informed decision. We’ve all tried on a pair of pants or three or four in a dressing room, looked in the mirror, and said, “Nope.”

So what about a “virtual” fitting room? Since at least 2010, companies have been working on some form of technology that allows shoppers to “try on” clothes from the comfort of their homes. Retailers and tech companies have tried solving the challenge via a mixture of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, cameras and other forms of sensors.

Now that we’re in the pandemic-transformed year of 2021, the need to solve this challenge is stronger than ever before, and becoming closer to being solved than ever before.

Augmented reality (AR) is a huge part of virtual fitting rooms. The concept overlays digital elements onto the real, physical world. In this case, AR puts digital clothes on a user’s image in real time right on their computer or smart phone or tablet, allowing them to “try on” items without actually physically trying them on.

The concept helps apparel sellers as well, because without being able to virtually “try on” an item, a certain percentage of people will always buy three, four, or more sizes of the same item in the same color because they know that they want to get the one that’s going to fit them.

If the concept can add the confidence that the customer is only going to buy one size, the number of returns to the seller has just been significantly reduced, thereby saving them money.

It’s a massive investment that a lot of big-name companies are willing to make. Companies like Walmart, Adidas, Kohl’s, Macy’s, and Nike are testing virtual fit tech. And the list goes on...

For all the big promises of virtual fitting room tech, it all comes down to how willing consumers are to actually use it. And as with online shopping in general, younger generations are more likely to use the tech than older ones.

So what’s the major hold up? Well, it’s still sort of a hassle. You have to download the app, do the scans, and make the effort. Plus there are concerns with data privacy and getting people to buy into the accuracy of the technology.

It’s going to be more than just convenient in the future. It’s going to turn into self-expression as well. Think of being able to design and customize your own products. As everything becomes more and more digital, it will just become second nature.

Retailers will be able to build brand loyalty through more personalized shopping experiences. This will drive sales, increase repeat visits, and build a loyal customer base. But retailers need to invest in the right kind of technology that’s easy to use, both for the retailer and for the consumer.

It may sound far-fetched, but it’s happening now. So don’t be surprised if very soon you’re customizing your size and style via augmented reality.