Chattanooga's EPB engineers fit the square peg into the round hole

Chattanooga's EPB engineers fit the square peg into the round hole

May 31st, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Transformers and cable are stored at the new EPB operations center located at the former Cavalier site on Central Avenue next to the Bailey Avenue overpass.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Fast facts about new EPB operations center off Central Ave.

• The site is a former manufacturing plant that was originally developed in 1865 as a sawmill.

• The sawmill operations led to furniture manufacturing

• By 1905, production had moved to wooden ice boxes

• In 1923, Cavalier was chosen as the product name of the wooden refrigerators produced at the location.

• Cavalier began production of electric well-type chest coolers in 1934

• In 1940, Cavalier began producing soft drink vending machines

• Production of furniture was discontinued in the 1960s.

• The production of refrigeration equipment continued into the 1970s.

• Cavalier experienced a series of financial problems in the 1980s, and manufacturing was discontinued.

• Several local organizations bought the site in the 1990s, and 18 buildings in poor condition were torn down.

• EPB purchased the 11-acre facility in 2010, began renovations in 2011 and opened the site in 2012.

• The utility spent a total of $8 million for the property and renovations. This includes 194,000 square feet, the extra office building and the 11 acres of land, which was considered a good deal.

• As comparison, EPB had estimated it would cost $10 million to build about 100,000 square feet at its current facility at Oak and Greenwood. Chattanooga's U.S. Attorney's office will pay $5.75 million merely to rent office space over a 10-year period.

Source: EPB

Moving is never fun.

For a move to work well, someone has to pack everything up, label the boxes, unpack everything at the new place and then organize everything.

That's been Bobby Hutcherson's entire life for nearly two years.

Only he wasn't moving a house, he moved an $8 million operations center for one of the largest utilities in the Tennessee Valley.

Eleven acres of trucks, spools, transformers, tools and even the odd Christmas tree -- it all had to go. And he had to move it all without interrupting a single hour of service for EPB's Chattanooga-area customers.

"We've moved seven departments here from Oak Street, and we'll eventually have three completely empty buildings over there," Hutcherson said.

After years of planning and $6.2 million in construction, workers parked their trucks at the new building on a Friday afternoon and drove them out again on Monday, May 21.

"It will take them six months to get everything perfect, but we were operational from day one," he said.

Hutcherson, senior manager of EPB's electric system, starting planning what employees call "the big move" in 2010.

That was the year in which Chattanooga's electric utility bought the historic property under the M.L. King Blvd., bridge for $1.8 million. The site is former home to the Cavalier Company, onetime producer of Coca-Cola-branded drink machines.

Harold DePriest, president and CEO of the utility, called the acquisition "a heckuva deal" in 2009.

"We get 11 acres of land, we get a storage area for equipment and materials of about 193,000 square feet and we get a 37,000-square-foot office building," DePriest said at the time.

It will also centralize an operation that has for years was spread out over multiple blocks, said Steve Clark, vice president of strategic systems.

"By pulling everything together on the new 11-acre property, we are cutting down the steps it takes to prepare for a day in the field," Clark said.

Classified as a brownfield, the land has been in rough shape for years. Much of the buildings were dilapidated and required extensive renovation, even after years of taxpayer-supported work to remediate the site.

Senior manager Bobby Hutcherson gives a tour of the new EPB operations center located at the former Cavalier site on Central Avenue next to the Bailey Avenue overpass.

Senior manager Bobby Hutcherson gives a tour of...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The site has been vacant since the Chattanooga Career Center moved from the site to Eastgate in early 2008 and TMIO Smart Ovens closed its manufacturing operations on the property, according to news reports.

Because of the chemicals in the dirt, state-approved environmentalists and geologists were required to be on hand anytime workers dug in the ground, which was frequently. Vagrants lived in the complex and under the nearby bridge.

But the bigger challenge was what to do about the buidings themselves, which were created for manufacturing, not for truck storage and maintance.

After a few engineering studies using life-size truck models, workers cut a handful of truck-sized holes in the walls. It worked.

"We were trying to do everything we could do here to get trucks in and out without building anything anything new," Hutcherson said.

Never again will space constraints force workers to park several blocks away from their supplies. Now, all the transformers and spools of wire sit above, below and beside the work trucks.

"It seems like common sense, but over the years we added things to the Oak Street campus and that's what happened, things got spread out," Hutcherson said.

The $6.8 million construction job also included EPB-designed oil changing stations, new offices, and smart lights that turn off when nobody is around. Parts of the facility can be activated in an instant if additional command and control is needed to recover from a disaster.

The plan for EPB's now-empty buildings on Oak Street isn't completely formulated yet, so the current task is to get it cleaned up. Workers will move the transformers sitting outdoors into the former truck barns.

"We're really going to try to make the front of Holtzclaw and Holly Street look better," Hutcherson said.

The utility's fiber-optic backbone and co-location center will remain at Oak Street, as will its power grid control center.

DePriest has said that EPB may eventually sell some of the 19 acres and six buildings it now owns at Oak and Greenwood, but "we have no such plans at this point."

Follow the latest Chattanooga news on Facebook.