Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey apparently had that new-car smell in his nose one recent morning during breakfast with Volkswagen officials.
As one member of the VW delegation pulled him aside to worry about site preparation at Enterprise South, Mr. Ramsey decided he’d have to move heaven and earth — a lot of earth — to bring manufacturing back to the town once known as the Dynamo of Dixie.
Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding--Heavy equipment continues to move dirt at the Enterprise South Industrial Park, the site where VW will build its first American assembly plant.
“I told him that morning, ‘You come back in two weeks, and you’ll see a difference,’” Mr. Ramsey recalled in a quiet moment Tuesday shortly after Volkswagen of America President Stefan Jacoby named Chattanooga as the location of VW’s new U.S. assembly plant.
“That afternoon we started moving city and county equipment in to clear land and move dirt,” Mr. Ramsey said.
Working sometimes 18 hours a day, city and county crews and private contractors cleared and leveled between 400 and 500 acres of land over the past several weeks, a feat Mr. Jacoby said convinced him just how much Chattanooga wanted his plant.
“And they got us. That shows us how dedicated this team is and how much they really wanted to have us here,” the VW chief said Tuesday to thundering applause as he described Enterprise South’s “amazing” turnaround.
To Mr. Ramsey and many of the thrown-together, site-clearing crew members, the 30,000-plus manhours and 25,000-plus equipment hours they’ve put in over the past two months was a mission for their families’ future.
“I’ve never had anything hit me like this did. Maybe my grandkids can get a job and not have to leave town,” said Harold Austin, Hamilton County’s director of highways, who helped oversee the site clearing.
Mr. Ramsey said the region’s can-do spirit has been apparent.
“You could feel it,” Mr. Ramsey said. “I was out there sometimes every day. There was a spirit of ownership. They were making something happen for this community.”
He said the workers on site began to tease him for his obsession over their efforts.
“(They would say) ‘We’re going to get this thing ready. We’re going to get it ready for you guys. You just keep it working. We’re going to do it,’” he said.
The work is being paid for in part by a $1.2 million grant from the state. The city and county matched the state’s help with $535,000 of in-kind services, which include manhours and equipment.
“We know we have more than covered the match by our in-kind labor and gasoline,” Jeannine Alday, Mr. Ramsey’s chief of staff, said Wednesday. She said she could not put a total price tag on the work at this time.
The cleared land — included in 1,300 acres to be deeded to Volkswagen as part of the incentives package to get the company here — will be readied to VW specifications, complete with utilities installed, when it is handed over to the company, Mr. Ramsey said.
“It’s just part of it,” he said of site incentives in economic development packages. “Companies won’t even talk to you without that.”
More fast-track cooperation
Despite the fervor to get trees cut and hills leveled at Enterprise South, the topic of that fateful breakfast meeting with VW was not forgotten. Mr. Ramsey said the city and county showed off the area’s technology skills by putting a camera onsite to give the German company a streaming video view of ongoing sitework.
Mark Keil, Chattanooga’s chief information officer, said the Web camera’s existence, accessible over the Internet, was kept quiet. But he laughed Wednesday as he confided that tracking software showed it was most heavily viewed not just in Germany but also in Huntsville, Ala., and Michigan. Both U.S. areas also were vying for the Volkswagen plant.
Meanwhile, many other aspects of readying the site and wooing VW were expedited at every level, even through the state, according to Matt Kisber, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
“They (Volkswagen officials) are focused on getting this plant up out of the ground and meeting a very ambitious timeline for having production occur in Chattanooga,” Mr. Kisber said. “The pressure we’re under is making sure they meet or beat that deadline.”
To do that, he said, the state’s goal is to “remove bureaucratic obstacles.”
Mr. Kisber said state and local workers have been assigned to work directly with VW “to ensure there is a one-stop approach” to needs such as permitting processes, job training or construction items such as water and sewer lines and electricity.
“Now we’ve got to execute,” he said of the commitments.
Stormwater permits and a permit to move more than three miles of stream and fill a wetlands, sought by Hamilton County for the recent, rushed site work, also was fast-tracked, according to officials.
The initial stormwater permits application sought for a small area in March was expanded to about 500 acres in mid-May.
The wetlands alteration permit, normally filed separately with both state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in this case was made a joint permit to speed the process of public hearings and considerations, according to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton and Water Pollution Control chief Richard Urban.
The public hearing for the wetlands alteration was Tuesday evening. In the wake of the morning VW announcement, no members of the public attended.
“We have been asked to expedite permitting processes when we can,” Dr. Urban said.
He used the wetlands alteration permit, normally a 90- to 180-day process, as an example. Regulators allowed the county to outline information about the plan while going through the public announcement phase, he said. The shortcut allowed the county time to refine its design, and regulators will review the entire plan before a decision is made, Dr. Urban said.
Steve Leach, Chattanooga’s administrator of public works, said the site work in the Bonny Oaks area industrial park, had many people’s best efforts over recent weeks. Each morning at 8, he said, leaders of the project would meet on a hilltop of the site to coordinate the day’s work.
“We called it the grassy knoll,” he said, “until the knoll disappeared. We’d say, ‘We’re a team. Let’s go execute.’”
The attitude was focused, and that was gratifying, he said.
“I think the importance of it was this is more of the legacy you want to leave your children and grandchildren. It wasn’t about self at all. It was about community,” Mr. Leach said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...