CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Whirlpool's new Bradley County plant under construction has a lot of firsts going for it.
At $120 million, it's the longtime appliance maker's biggest new plant investment, and Whirlpool officials say the factory will be state of the art in the industry.
Also, the company is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status for the factory - which would be the first of its manufacturing plants in the United States to gain the LEED badge.
Dicky Walters, plant leader for Whirlpool's Cleveland division, said the company is targeting "Gold" LEED, which is one of the most rigorous levels, for its new cooking products plant.
"Currently [we] have a plan to achieve that level," he said in an email.
Walters said the LEED scorecard, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, includes factors such as water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, environmental quality and innovative design.
"We are getting credit in all these areas," he said.
Walters said building plans include using natural lighting significantly, roofing material reflecting solar energy rather than absorbing it, and water-efficient fixtures.
Whirlpool announced last September it would raise the 1 million-square-foot factory and a 400,000-square-foot distribution center.
Michigan-based Whirlpool, already Cleveland's biggest employer, said it will add 130 jobs to a 1,500-member work force that assembles ovens and ranges.
The new plant, slated to start production in early 2012, is going up on a greenfield site at Benton Pike and Michigan Avenue about five miles away from existing facilities which are located in a collection of old buildings.
Whirlpool's main site takes up most of about seven blocks in a gritty part of Cleveland on the edge of downtown. Nearby are empty brick structures which formerly held manufacturing ventures of their own.
Doug Berry, the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, said historically there has been a lot of manufacturing in the downtown area.
"Workers lived close and walked," he said.
Whirlpool employees say the new facility will be good for them.
"It will be a better atmosphere, a better work area," said Matt Brinkley, of Etowah, Tenn. "It will be up to date."
Wade McClanahan, of Cleveland, said the big investment keeps the longtime plant in Bradley County.
"I'm glad their doing it," he said, rather than sending the production to Mexico or China.
What is now Whirlpool has its origins in Cleveland as Dixie Foundry, dating back to 1914, Berry said.
"It is the epitome of Cleveland as a manufacturing community," he said.
But early in 2010, Bradley officials were worried they might lose their biggest employer, Berry said.
He said economic developers had their first casual meeting on the proposed project Jan. 5, 2010, and then another in Nashville a few weeks later.
Berry said they initially had 45 days to come up with a "build to suit" proposal with the local industrial development board.
"We couldn't do that. We struggled to keep the company at the table," he said. "We spent most of the first half of the year wondering if we were about to lose our largest employer in Bradley County."
But, Berry said, that led officials of focus on other options, and it identified six locations for the project.
"They did stay at the table and give us an opportunity," he said. "From that point on the burden was on us to prove we had the capacity to analyze and understand their needs."
At the same time, Berry said, Whirlpool would have had to leave a well-trained work force if it departed Cleveland.
Also, Bradley officials kept reminding Whirlpool of its historical ties and the importance of the company to its residents, he said.
State and local officials offered an incentive package that helped the company offset its expenses in the front end such as on site development, Berry said. Whirlpool additionally obtained a 23-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, he said.
But the official said it would have taken years for Bradley to recover from losing 1,500 jobs.
Today, with Whirlpool under construction on the site, Berry projects that investment in facilities and equipment will more likely hit $147 million.
Whirlpool has a $51 million a year payroll, and it has 23 suppliers employing almost 3,000 people in Tennessee, he said
Walters said construction of its plant facility is on target despite wet weather. Work on the distribution center will be built in 2012, he said.
Walters said hiring should start later this year.
While the economy is shaky, he said, a decision on an investment that large is looked at over several years.
"The new plant will continue to manufacture the built-in cooking products including wall ovens, cooktops, slide-in ranges, double-oven freestanding ranges as well as some other niche products," Walters said.
He said many of the products are being redesigned to bring in more industry innovations.
Walters said Whirlpool won't be out of the existing facility until mid-2013 so it hasn't begun marketing the buildings yet.
"We will work with the city to seek a viable use for the buildings and/or real estate," he said.
Berry said it's not just Bradley that gains from the company, but many other counties.
Berry said about 800 workers live in Bradley, judging by their ZIP codes. He said the person with the longest commute lives in Shelbyville, Tenn., about 80 miles away.
But, Berry said, workers also live in Monroe County and throughout Southeast Tennessee and into North Georgia.
"It's a regional project with a regional impact," he said.