Chattanooga’s mountains and rivers lure millions of visitors a year and have helped build a $600 million-a-year tourism industry in the Scenic City.
But that mountainous terrain also has long challenged those trying to recruit industry wanting large, flat, undeveloped sites.
Chattanooga boosters insist they have answered that challenge with the Enterprise South Industrial Park, which Mayor Ron Littlefield brags is now one of the best industrial sites in the country for a major manufacturing venture.
After decades of land negotiations, cleanup and site work, the former Army munitions plant is ready to do battle in the hunt for new industry. As a TVA-certified “megasite” for an automobile assembly plant, Enterprise South offers 1,600 acres directly accessible off Interstate 75 surrounded by a 2,800-acre buffer park and another 1,400 acres being readied for industrial use within the next couple of years.
Enterprise South was a finalist last year among competing sites for the Toyota truck plant that ultimately landed in Tupelo, Miss. Chattanooga boosters insist they are more than ready for the next new auto plant, which they hope will be a Volkswagen auto assembly plant. The company is expected to announce its building site within the next couple of weeks.
Site consultants and representatives for VW toured Enterprise South this spring and bulldozers are working to clear and grade the site for a new business prospect. Enterprise South, jointly owned by the city and county, already has its own interchange on I-75 and road connections off state Highway 58 and Bonny Oaks Drive.
Mr. Littlefield, a former city planner, public works commissioner and economic development director at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, said the industrial site is the best Chattanooga has ever had to offer a business prospect.
“Having worked in economic development for a long time, I know of no site that has all of the positive qualities that that site has at Enterprise South,” he said. “What is truly unique is the dual rail service (with rail connections from both Norfolk Southern and the CSX railroad). That’s something that you don’t see in many places and that’s very important if you are going to maintain a competitive business environment.”
But state and local officials involved in directly pitching Enterprise South to new industry are keeping mum about even mentioning the word Volkswagen.
Asked about the land clearing under way at Enterprise South, Mr. Littlefield remains coy.
“It’s summer and time to cut the grass,” he quipped.
“I think we’ll have an excellent chance of bringing an automotive plant here,” Gov. Phil Bredesen said during a recent visit to Chattanooga. “Tennessee is in great position and what Tennessee needs to do now is to stop talking about this publicly and to let (Economic and Community Development Commissioner) Matt Kisber and others do their work.”
The Enterprise South site was redeveloped from a portion of the former 7,000-acre Volunteer Army Ammunitions Plant, which quit making TNT after the Vietnam War ended in the early 1970s.
McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a Greenville, S.C.-based site-selection company, certified 1,600 acres of Chattanooga’s Enterprise South as a megasite ready for an automotive plant in May 2005. Since then, Kia and Toyota, among other major manufacturers, have looked at the industrial park for potential plants.
Ed McCallum, senior principal for the consulting firm that bears his name, said auto companies are “under tremendous market pressures to make siting decisions and start up facilities very quickly.” He said the Chattanooga site meets all the criteria a major auto plant requires and is ready for any site work to begin immediately for a new plant.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the former Chattanooga mayor who recently hosted a dinner with VW and local officials at his Riverview home, said Chattanooga “is very well positioned” for a new auto plant, although he declined to talk about any specific prospects.
“The fact that we have an interchange that is built and in place for Enterprise South and the fact that we have a dual rail system are real advantages for Enterprise South,” Mr. Corker said. “I’m certainly going to do what I can as a U.S. senator to help out.”
Chattanooga has a rich manufacturing history as home to the first and oldest manufacturing association in America, the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association which dates back to 1902. As the hub for the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor, “Chattanooga is the place where we can make and apply the innovations” sparked at research labs in Oak Ridge, Tullahoma, Huntsville, Ala., and elsewhere, said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, the Chattanooga Republican who launched the Tech Corridor shortly after he was elected to Congress in 1994.
The Scenic City also boasts a relatively low cost of living and tax rate, combined with a favorable quality of life. A new listing of the best places to live by Relocate America ranked Chattanooga as the third best city in America, behind only Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas.
To help ensure an adequate supply of trained labor, local, state and federal governments also have set aside a majority of the funds needed for a $6 million manufacturing training campus at Enterprise South. The proposed 25,000-square-foot center would operate as another satellite of Chattanooga State Community and Technical College and could be tailored to provide specialized training for a new auto plant. The center’s design also makes room for expansion.
Within five miles of Enterprise South, and only a 10-minute drive from UTC’s engineering school, a 50-acre vehicle test track also could prove attractive for Volkswagen. The one-mile oval track and a related 10,000-square-foot garage were built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1981 to test electric vehicles.
Under a long-term lease with UTC and the Advanced Transportation Technology Institute, the track could prove valuable in specialized testing for new battery, hydrogen or hybrid engines for future vehicles, institute Executive Director Jim Frierson said.
“This is a crown-jewel asset with what VW themselves are saying about the future of their company and this industry,” he said.