Southerland Holding Out Hope for NE TN Megasite

State Sen. Steve Southerland sounds enthusiastic about the possibility of Upper East Tennessee landing a TVA megasite like the ones taxpayers provided for Volkswagen and Hemlock Semiconductor.

But the Morristown Republican’s enthusiasm may be more a matter of a legislator cheerleading than an indication of any substantive action. Other officials, including some community leaders in the region itself, say they see no hint of a megasite headed to the area, for a variety of reasons.

State Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said recently he had heard the subject come up in regard to Upper East Tennessee, but he downplayed the potential.

“In terms of a new large-scale megasite like West Tennessee, I think there is a lot of optimism we might be able to do that in other parts of the state, but there is nothing along that magnitude on the drawing board right now,” Hagerty said.

Alan Palmieri, mayor of Jefferson County, said he has heard the subject raised for his region — but only “for years and years and years.” Mayor Bill Brittain of Hamblen County, which includes Morristown, said this week he has not heard the matter come up.

But in talking to a reporter at a recent event in Morristown, Southerland made it sound like efforts are underway for landing a megasite.

“We’ve got sites in the area that could be a megasite,” Southerland said. “It has a good possibility, because our counties are working together. We know it has to be a joint, regional project.

“We approved three megasites. We’ve got one in West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and then one in Chattanooga. But we have not received one for Upper East Tennessee. It’s our turn. We spent the money down there. If the people are willing to work together up here and we have somebody wanting to come this way we’re going to go for it.”

Megasites have been noteworthy for several reasons recently. Tennesseans have begun to see the fruits of preparing large tracts of land and infrastructure, with Volkswagen opening its manufacturing plant in Chattanooga and Hemlock making an impact in Montgomery County, including ties with Austin Peay State University.

A third megasite, in Haywood County in West Tennessee, has begun to get more attention from government officials, but it remains vacant.

Gov. Bill Haslam has taken some of the glimmer off the headline-grabbing practice of attracting large businesses to the state, pointing out that most of the job growth comes from existing businesses, not high-profile relocations.

Nevertheless, Haslam has repeatedly said that doesn’t mean the state has abandoned the big relocation approach. At an economic development meeting in Morristown, Haslam said the administration is still ready “to move heaven and earth” to get such investments.

Southerland picked up on that line.

“Just like he said, we’d move heaven and earth to get another Volkswagen here,” Southerland said. “When you look at Hamblen County, we’re like a hub for other counties bringing in automotive jobs.”

Taxpayer bill can reach hundreds of millions of dollars

State and local taxpayers typically can end up contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the development of a megasite.

In the case of the Enterprise South industrial site that attracted Volkswagen to Hamilton County, the government’s bill, including tax breaks, was estimated in one report at $500 million. Volkswagen made an investment of $1 billion, roughly the amount Hemlock put into the megasite in Montgomery County.

Arrangements for the sites can involve help from federal, state and local governments. After that, the value of the investment is widely open to debate. Economic development officials routinely have said the kinds of businesses attracted by the megasites are giant winners for the locations. But increasingly, questions exist as to the return on the investment in attracting jobs, as states have become highly competitive.

Haslam has expressed surprise at what some companies want in return for creating jobs in Tennessee, although he has said his administration remains interested in attracting the types of investments made by Volkswagen and Hemlock.

“In this state, the funding for the megasites has been a combination of local government money and state government money, with some participation from TVA funding the certification process,” said Clint Brewer, spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

In Montgomery and Hamilton counties local governments handled the purchase of the land. For the Haywood County megasite, where local governments lack such resources, the state has purchased most of the land. Theoretically, private entities could have to assemble the property at a megasite.

“The local communities pay for the site’s due diligence and improvement, such as environmental reviews, infrastructure improvements, etc.,” said Mike Bradley, of the TVA news bureau in Knoxville, by e-mail Thursday. “This sometimes is done even after the site has been certified as a megasite. The effort is usually championed by a local economic developer.”

The Tennessee General Assembly this year passed legislation (SB1239) to allow the East Tennessee Regional Agribusiness Marketing Authority, or ETRAMA, to issue bonds.

The idea of economic development in the region is to enhance development along the I-81 corridor.

Two issues face the region on infrastructure for business development: hooking up a sewer system to accommodate large capacity and getting connectors in place for major rail lines in the region. Plans for the sewer line would involve trunk lines that would feed wastewater into a plant in Lowland, which is in Hamblen County.

The vacant megasite in Haywood County has 1,720 acres. Another vacant TVA megasite in Hopkinsville, Ky., has 2,100 acres. Those kinds of numbers may work against mountainous Upper East Tennessee.

“I was told years ago because of our geography it’s hard to collect 500 flat acres,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport. “Maybe we don’t get a megasite. Maybe we get a mega-area.

“The same amount of money is being spent in Chattanooga, West Tennessee and the Nashville basin area. Maybe that same amount of money could come here, because we are distinctly different.”

Palmieri, the Jefferson County mayor, makes a similar observation.

“You look at the land, and you say, ‘Where are you going to locate this?’ Terrain would be part of the process because whatever you do, you’ve got to make it economically feasible. If you’re going to have to go in and take down mountains and blast and everything else, it’s going to add to the cost, which everybody wants to avoid.”

In another way, however, geography is a plus for the region. State and local government officials point to the fact the region is within driving distance of a large portion of the nation’s population.

Like Disney World theme park, talk of megasite ‘just conversation’

Palmieri has heard talk of a megasite but sees little in the way of real progress.

“I know various mayors have talked about it for many years. Various chambers (of commerce) have talked about it. Nothing has really developed outside the fact it’s just conversation,” he said.

“Where would you go? Who’s going to bring in something that massive today? It’s probably been put on the back burner, but it’s been going on for I guess probably the last 10-12 years.”

Southerland sees other factors.

“We know with the earthquake in Japan and the value of the U.S. dollar that Japan will be looking more at investing in the United States in automotive plants. And we’re hoping to get one of whatever comes this way,” Southerland said. “You’ve got to be prepared because when they come they’re going to be looking for somebody that’s already ready to go.”

Palmieri said that for years there was talk that the people from Disney World were going to put a theme park in Cocke County.

“I heard that for 20 years,” he said. “That was a hot one there for awhile. It was going to be just a regular theme park, like a Disneyland or Dollywood. That was before Dolly owned Dollywood.”

But if the region were to get a large plant, Palmieri says the automotive or airline industries would make good sense. He said the area’s workforce, which has experience in production lines, would be good for a manufacturing base.

When asked why the airline industry would be a good fit, Palmieri said, “Everything they have is predominantly in a high-tax area. What they’re having to pay the workforce there is probably three or four times what they could have to pay a workforce here in Jefferson County or East Tennessee.

“Transportation-wise, with the Interstate and everything else, easy access in and out, I can see where they could save a lot of money, and it’d be much more profitable for their company.”

Aircraft maker Boeing has recently been involved in a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over a plant it plans to build in South Carolina. Palmieri said Tennessee should get a look.

“If Boeing ever took a serious look, they could come in, acquire property and build buildings and have a workforce ready to go, and they would save money almost right off the bat,” he said. “South Carolina is more expensive. They have payroll taxes and everything else. I don’t understand that.

“I have family there. It’s a beautiful state. I can’t stand Steve Spurrier (the South Carolina football coach). But why would you go to South Carolina when Interstate access, transportation needs, centralization, taxes, everything is so much better right here in East Tennessee? I don’t understand that.”