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John Lee, president of Lee Motor Group, called Wilson Community College vibrant and progressive Thursday after the ribbon was cut on the new Lee Technology Center in Wilson.
Lee donated more than 10 acres of land and five buildings to the college in 2014 so it could expand beyond its nearby Herring Avenue campus.
The property, at the corner of Ward Boulevard and U.S. 301, has since undergone a major transformation with two of the main buildings being converted into classroom spaces for the college’s automotive technology and applied technology programs. Additional educational uses of the property are in the planning stages.
On Thursday, the college invited about 150 attendees to tour the facility and see the $1.6 million renovation.
“I am just so proud of what this has become, and this is real and permanent for young people and old alike getting an education to make their lives better, and it makes our community better,” Lee said. “It gives us an offering that a lot of communities don’t have.
“We have got a very vibrant, progressive community college here that has 7,000 students,” he said. “We not only serve our own, but this is a regional destination for people in this area to get an education, and it is very, very important that we continue to maintain this and continue to grow and that’s what we have been able to do here. We are just very, very proud that we could be part of this.”
Lee was joined at the event by his mother, Marguerite Lee; his wife, Lynn Lee; his business partner, Tim Varnell; and several Lee Motor Group employees.
‘VISION AND DETERMINATION”
Lee’s father, James L. Lee, started Lee Motor Co. in 1953 with wife Marguerite.
“They started in 1953 on a hope and a prayer and a little bit of money, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of that,” Lee said.
Lee Motor Co. was then a small Ford dealer in Elm City.
“Then in 1968 or so, my father bought Tobacco City Motors out, which, ironically, was on the corner of the main campus.” Lee recalled. “In 1980, when he passed, he had this one dealership, and now we’re located in four states. We sell upwards of 12,000 units a year. We have about a dozen or so locations and we are still based right here in Wilson, and we are proud of that.”
Lee said it is “unbelievable” what the community college has done to convert the old dealership into the new Lee Technology Center campus.
“It just shows you what vision and determination can do,” Lee said. “We’re just so proud of this.”
Lee said this corner or Wilson needed an uplift.
“We need help in all of the areas of Wilson we can get, but Barton College is on this side of town. The community college is on this side of our city and Bridgestone,” Lee said. “It would have been such a waste for this corner to look like just another abandoned corner in eastern North Carolina, and now it’s not. Now there is real good happening, and I can’t tell you how good a feeling that makes me have. It’s great.”
Lee called the open house “a great day.”
“You just can’t imagine how this can make my family feel to see the growth and what’s been done on this site,” he told the attendees. “It really makes us feel good knowing that this gift is going to be sustainable for many, many years to come, create education and opportunities for those that get it to go out and be entrepreneurs, to go out and make livings for their families, make the community better.”
Lee gave the group a brief history lesson.
“I want to thank everyone who has supported our family since 1953,” Lee said. “My father worked for Ford Motor Co., came up by his bootstraps, worked hard, treated people right. He passed in 1980 after he had built this facility in 1970.”
Lee said former WCC president Rusty Stephens first asked if the Lee family would consider giving the property to the college.
“We’re just grateful that Rusty came along and had the vision as the vision of so many of you here of what has been accomplished here,” Lee said. “We are very proud of it. I will tell each and every one of you that one of the greatest feelings in the world is being an entrepreneur, having your own business, getting up every morning, looking in the mirror and betting on yourself; that’s a great feeling. But equally as great is finding a worthwhile cause, a worthwhile entity as this community college and what it means to this community to give back. And my family is very, very proud of this.
“Thank each and every one of your who have had such a great part in this,” he said. “It is overwhelming what the feeling is to see this and to know that this is really going to be sustainable for many, many years to come, so thank each and every one of you.”