Chattanooga jobs campaign on target, though Hamilton jobless rate is 8.2%

Chattanooga jobs campaign on target, though Hamilton jobless rate is 8.2%

July 23rd, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Ron Harr

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Halfway through its four-year job-growth campaign, Chattanooga's chief economic development group says it's on target to meet most of its goals even if Volkswagen's new SUV project goes to Mexico.

The only lagging category so far is capital investment, officials said, but the VW plant landing another vehicle to produce could push the needle off the dial.

"It would move all the needles in wonderful ways," said Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, citing other targets such as direct jobs, number of new slots created using a multiplier, and added payroll.

However, in the wake of landing Volkswagen, Amazon and other companies in Enterprise South industrial park, Hamilton County has a lack of industrial sites, and that's seen as a drag on growth, officials said.

"We are working on things quietly," said Harr about finding more sites. "I can't say what we're looking at."

Charles Wood, the Chamber's vice president of economic development, said the Chamber is working with new Mayor Andy Berke on the redevelopment of potential brownfields or grayfields in the city.

Officials said they're teaming with Donna Williams, Berke's choice to lead the Economic and Community Development Department for the city.

In addition, the Chamber is wooing more office jobs. The aim is to fill up vacant space both in and outside of downtown.

"There's a significant amount of space," Wood said.

The latest Chattanooga Can Do campaign is a $9.2 million, publicly and privately funded initiative. The city and Hamilton County are expected to provide $3.6 million over the four years of the program that began in July 2011.

While the Chamber reports the addition of 3,293 direct jobs created by companies so far in the Can Do effort, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has the metro area picking up about 5,900 jobs in the two-year period from June 2011 to June 2013, the most recent number.

However, Hamilton County's unemployment rate in May 2013, the latest month available, was 8.2 percent. While that's slightly lower than the 8.4 percent mark in July 2011, the U.S. jobless rate in May 2013 was 7.6 percent.

Another sector the Chamber is targeting is automotive suppliers, given the VW plant, its supplier park and Chattanooga's proximity to other assembly plants in the South.

"We're billing ourselves as the center of the automotive South," Wood said.

Harr said that if VW's Chattanooga plant secures another vehicle to produce in addition to the Passat sedan, that will create a critical mass of business for more suppliers to come to the region. He added that suppliers also may locate in other Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia counties, and that will benefit Chattanooga as the city is the region's retail center.

Wood said the Chamber and VW want to see suppliers locate as close as possible, but there's "definitely a regional dynamic."

Harr added that the business group will continue to try to get the word out about what Chattanooga has to offer at both a national and international level.

He said whether that involves the Gig City, VW's green efforts, or even the Ironman movie, it's a major part of the Chamber's work.

Wood said that gaining attention in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal "is very powerful for us."

The economic development arm of the Chamber receives more than $1 million a year in public funding from the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, TVA and EPB, and the business association also is supported by more than 1,700 business members.

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