There were plenty of congratulations going around at Tuesday’s announcement that Volkswagen will build its assembly plant in Chattanooga, but one name in particular was on almost everyone’s lips.
“No elected leader deserves more credit than Claude Ramsey,” said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.
Mr. Ramsey, Hamilton County’s mayor since 1994 and a former state representative, county commissioner and property assessor, said credit should go to others, such as Trevor Hamilton, vice president of economic development with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
Gov. Phil Bredesen said local officials share credit for developing Enterprise South industrial park, where Volkswagen has about 1,300 acres for its plant.
“I think Chattanooga, in addition to a can-do attitude, has got to take a lot of credit for the development of that Enterprise South industrial park,” he said.
He singled out Mr. Ramsey for his determination to hold out for a major industry.
“There’s a lot of reasons that brought Volkswagen here, but it would never have begun had there not been a suitable site,” Gov. Bredesen said.
Mr. Ramsey has been working steadily on the site for 14 years.
Talks about the property that is now Enterprise South started in earnest the year he was elected mayor, Mr. Ramsey said. The hardest part was acquiring the land.
“We weren’t having any luck at all,” he said of efforts with then-Chattanooga-Mayor Gene Roberts. “I think the company didn’t want to give up the lease they had.”
ICI Americas Inc., the parent company of Atlas Chemical Industries, which held the lease on the land, kept it until 1998, according to Army documents. It wasn’t until the next Chattanooga mayor, John Kinsey, took office that the Army sold the land.
The city and county governments paid $7.5 million for the land in October 2000.
As more land was acquired for Enterprise South, the road across the property was opened to the public, sewers were upgraded and officials began thinking about how to market the site.
The county had not had a site that could accommodate a large manufacturer such as Anheuser Busch, which looked at Hamilton County in 1993 but built its brewery in Cartersville, Ga., Mr. Ramsey said.
“There really wasn’t a good site to put that,” he said. “We needed that big piece of land.”
After the land was bought, the next obstacle was getting people to look at it. Most of the companies that looked wanted 200 or so acres in the middle of the site, but Mr. Ramsey wanted to preserve the big parcel.
“We had lots of conversations, but there was always something that didn’t work out just right,” he said.
As Bob Corker finished his term as mayor of Chattanooga in 2005, Enterprise South was certified as a TVA megasite. News soon began circulating that South Korean automaker Kia might build a plant there.
But the Kia plant wasn’t a real possibility, Mr. Ramsey said.
“We never really thought that it had any legs,” said Mr. Ramsey, who noted that he and others knew Kia wanted to build close to the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala. The Kia plant went to West Point, Ga., about 80 miles from Montgomery and just over the state line.
Two years later, Mr. Ramsey and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield tried to lure Toyota.
“We did all we could with the Toyota effort, and it just didn’t work,” Mr. Ramsey said. “If somebody’s going to invest $1 billion, they’re going to eventually do what they want to do where they’re going to do it. And that may be for political reasons or financial reasons or labor reasons or logistics. There’s just a multitude of factors involved.”
Now that Volkswagen has announced it will build the plant, Mr. Ramsey said he’s focusing on education for the rest of his term, which ends in 2010. He said he’s not thinking about whether he’ll run for re-election.
“I’m 65 years old, and I’ve got some wonderful grandkids I’d like to spend some time with,” he said. “But I’d be misleading you if I didn’t say this is a very exciting time to be in public life.”
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.