Since it was first announced in February as a major state government election pledge, the $7 million Nelson Bay TAFE campus - later revealed to be a Connected Learning Centre (CLC) - has been shrouded in controversy.
Five months on and the promised CLC remains a contentious issue with claims of Budget 2019-20 funding shortfalls and fears that a future TAFE could have a negative impact on existing adult education resources on the Tomaree peninsula.
It was confirmed this week by Liberal MLC Taylor Martin that Nelson Bay would be one of eight sites to be allocated over the next 12 months a total of $4 million "for planning stages".
It followed Labor MP Kate Washington's scathing attack in last week's Examiner on the government for its lack of funding.
Mr Martin went on to say that "we've delivered funding to build the first permanent presence for TAFE NSW in Nelson Bay", calling it a "modern campus, providing world class facilities for students to access quality training in a range of areas critical to the NSW and local economy".
The government would not, however, offer a timeline as to how and when the $7 million would be rolled out in Nelson Bay.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education said that they would be in a position to make a decision on an optimal location for the CLC "when we are further progressed in our planning processes".
"TAFE NSW has a small presence at Tomaree which offers a limited number of courses such as business administration and community services," the spokesperson said. "The facility is co-located in the Tomaree Education Centre alongside a primary and high school, meaning there are some restrictions in terms of expanding the current facility."
The news has been greeted with enthusiasm by the Tomaree Business Chamber, which has led the push for a TAFE model as part of a proposed Donald Street east carpark redevelopment.
"This is a community-led project with the strong potential to converting the current rate of high school students into taking up further education which they may not have previously considered," chamber business manager Peter Clough said.
"It would open doors for locals to undertake a far more extensive range of courses while lifting their skill levels and, as a result, provide more employment opportunities for youth, particularly those who do not have the capacity to travel.
"It would also meet the needs of Port Stephens employers while boosting the Nelson Bay economy.
"Put simply, it has the potential to provide skill development pathways for many of the 30,000 residents living on the Tomaree peninsula. "
The reaction from Tomaree Community College CEO Linda Drake was a little more cautious.
A registered training organisation, the non-for-profit college has for more than 40 years been successfully providing the people of Nelson Bay with a range of adult courses and learning programs.
"The injection of $7 million into further or tertiary education has many benefits for the Tomaree peninsula and as a long serving college here we would like to think that we are consulted and included in the discussions," Ms Drake said.
"The college has excellent working relationships with the business and employment communities and we have some exciting future plans in the pipeline."
Leah Anderson, chamber president, said it was clear that the state government had recognised the need for a higher education project in Nelson Bay.
"The Tomaree Peninsula Higher Education Working Group is working with the University of Newcastle to introduce pathway programs for our community as well as a potential innovation hub to complement the new CLC," she said.