VW center awaits its welcome

VW center awaits its welcome

November 24th, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

The VW logo is seen on the front of one of dozens of new Passats made at the Chattanooga Volkswagen assembly plant parked outside the plant. These cars will be used as demos for testing, internal quality control and press test drives.

Chattanooga officials marveled at the speed by which Volkswagen put up its massive 2-million-square-foot auto assembly plant.

But plans for a VW welcome center just off Interstate 75 are moving at a snail's pace while officials wait for federal government OK to a proposed land swap at Enterprise South industrial park.

After nearly two years of working on the swap with the U.S. Department of Interior, Hamilton County officials believe they finally will get title near year's end to a 15.6-acre tract where the center would sit.

"The city and county promised VW to have it ready to start in 2012," said Paul Parker, Hamilton County's real property manager. "It looks like it will."

Even then, however, it's uncertain when work on the welcome center will begin.

Guenther Scherelis, general manager of communication for VW's Chattanooga operations, said the proposed center isn't currently under discussion by the automaker and there is no start date.

"It's not on the agenda," he said, as the company focuses on continuing to ramp up production of the all-new Passat.

According to the memorandum of understanding between VW and local governments, the city and county are pledged to match the automaker's contribution for such a center up to $6 million.

VW PLANT TOURS

Volkswagen has started giving plant visitor tours on a limited basis.

TOURIST SITES

Visitor centers at auto plants in the Southeast:

* Bowling Green, Ky. - General Motors opened the National Corvette Museum in 1990, nine years after opening the Corvette assembly plant along Interstate-24 in Kentucky.

* Vance, Ala. - Mercedes-Benz built its first visitor center outside Germany next to its only U.S. auto plant, which opened in 1994.

* Georgetown, Ky. - In June 1994, the 11,500-square-foot Toyota Visitor Center opened next to the Toyota plant with exhibits, interactive displays and even the first Camry to roll off the assembly line.

* Greer, S.C. - BMW's Zentrum opened in 1994 and includes vehicle displays, videos, souvenirs and the chance to tour the adjacent plant.

Officials project that 55 million travelers each year would pass by the welcome center on I-75.

The visitors center in many ways will be the public face of the $1 billion VW plant. Unlike some auto assembly plants in the Southeast, the VW plant isn't visible from an interstate highway.

Bob Doak, the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau chief, said the welcome center could help local tourism.

"If it's a draw to get people off I-75, it will be an opportunity to talk about what they can do in Chattanooga," he said. "We can tell our message, get them to Hamilton Place, downtown and Lookout Mountain."

Doak said he'd like to see the center up "sooner the better," but he didn't think it's a negative for tourism not having it.

Such welcome centers can woo lots of people.

At the BMW production plant in Greer, S.C., about 70,000 visitors start their factory tour at its visitors center or just stroll through the facility.

The giant U-shaped visitors center - dubbed the Zentrum (the German word for center) - displays dozens of BMW cars, trucks and motorcycles and chronicles the history of the 92-year-old German carmaker.

Steve Leach, Chattanooga's public works administrator, said it has been a long process getting the property for the VW center.

"They've been holding people at bay until we got it," he said.

The site sits within the public park that was earlier deeded by the federal government to the city and county. Sitting on a hill adjacent to I-75 and Volkswagen Drive, it was appraised at $2 million, Parker said.

"It's an excellent location," he said.

In exchange, the city and county is swapping 36 acres of property at the entrance of Enterprise South nature park which is appraised at $2.45 million, Parker said.

"We exceed the value of the property we need," the official said. In addition, he said, the deal includes a transmission line easement.

Parker said it took so long to do the deal because of the time-consuming process of identifying the property, compiling information, and doing environmental impact studies and appraisals.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.