Political Movement on Megasite

Gov. Bill Haslam presided over the first meeting of the governing body of the Haywood County megasite Monday in Jackson, but it was Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey who offered the most pointed advice to the new board.

He spoke from experience.

“You will have a lot of highs and lows,” said Ramsey, who was Hamilton County mayor as Chattanooga pursued the Volkswagen plant that ultimately brought a $1 billion investment to the megasite there.

“This is a very patient process that a lot of people will be impatient about. It’s hard work. There will be times people will say that nothing is happening. I’ve been called a lot of funny names. There will be those days when it’s a little bit slow.”

But the message was perseverance, and Ramsey encouraged West Tennessee leaders to weather the down times as the site seeks a client like Volkswagen or Hemlock Semiconductor, which made its own $1 billion investment at a megasite in Montgomery County and has already announced a substantial additional investment there.

After the meeting, Ramsey visited the Haywood County site, accompanied by Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, as well as other officials working on the project. The group included Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, whom the board elected chairman at its meeting on Monday. Haslam did not visit the site Monday but has been to the location on more than one occasion.

Haywood County is the last of the state’s three TVA megasites, designed to attract major business relocations, an issue that not only plays a role in the state’s economic future but has become a political football in its own right.

Haslam recently announced that the state will move away from the emphasis on attracting huge business re-locations and concentrate on feeding the growth of existing businesses in the state. But Haslam told board members Monday that the significance of the West Tennessee site has not diminished.

“I can assure you there are few things we care as much about as the proper development of the megasite,” Haslam told the group at a conference room at the McKeller-Sipes Airport in Jackson.

“I said back when I was campaigning, and I’ll say it again now, I think it is one of the best assets we have for the state when we look at economic development. We do not have a lot of pieces of property like this that are available.”

The site sits near Stanton, north of exit 42 on Interstate 40. At this point, the project remains only a conceptual plan. The site was originally certified to meet the potential needs of an automotive manufacturer. There is no indication that an auto maker will move into the site, but state officials hope a business will locate there that can attract numerous suppliers, as an automotive manufacturer would.

“We’re not pinning all of our hopes for job development on the megasite. We have some prospects right now in this part of the state we’re working hard to hopefully bring here,” Haslam said after the meeting. “But this is a great long-term project.”

Board members were briefed on where progress on the site stands now. It is in a vastly rural area, which creates challenges for infrastructure. Authorities told the board Monday the location would need 3 million gallons of water a day and that three wells are being dug into the Memphis aquifer to meet that need. Each well would draw 1.5 million gallons, and the board was given assurances Monday the amount of water would be adequate to meet the need. Waste water services will also be necessary.

The site will need a water treatment system, which will be on the property, and Highway 222, which runs through the middle of the site, will need to be re-routed. The board was told that while no specific funds were put into the budget just passed by the Legislature that flexibility is in place to make funding available if a client is found for the site. The state already has $34.7 million set aside in the Department of Economic Development for use on the Haywood County project.

The site includes 3,800 acres, with the core site comprised of 1,700 acres.

Democrats had criticized Haslam and other Republicans during the legislative session that ended Saturday for not putting more funds into the megasite at a time when the state is desperate for jobs. Several lawmakers from West Tennessee, including Democrats from the House and Senate, attended the meeting Monday in Jackson. But there seemed to be agreement and optimism among lawmakers from both parties that the project is on the right track.

Nevertheless, it still figures to be at least two years before a big business could be up and running at the site, the board was told Monday.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, had been critical of Haslam’s lack of attention to the megasite in his budget earlier this year. But all three attended the board meeting Monday and appeared upbeat about the project.

Smith’s selection as chairman was noteworthy in that he has been an integral player in seeking support for the megasite and made a campaign ad for Haslam in last year’s gubernatorial race, although Smith is a Democrat.

“We’ve been patient. I’ve been working on this almost seven years,” Smith said after the board meeting in Jackson. “Patience is something we’ve got.

“What people need to understand is this is a state project. There is statewide support for this project. I want folks to understand this is not a Haywood County project. It will benefit everybody in West Tennessee.”