VW center, workers coming to downtown Chattanooga

VW center, workers coming to downtown Chattanooga

July 17th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Local Regional News

Christian Koch, President/CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, Thomas Ulbrich, Volkswagen passenger car board of management member, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke gather at the Hunter Museum of American Art on July 15, 2014, to announce that they are investing $600 million to expand the Chattanooga plant where they will be producing a new sport utility vehicle.

Christian Koch, President/CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, Thomas Ulbrich,...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Powering up its presence in downtown Chattanooga, Volkswagen plans to work with the city and Hamilton County to erect a $12 million welcome center.

Some personnel from VW's planned research and development center also can expect to work downtown, bolstering a planned innovation district.

Those were among new details that emerged Wednesday, two days after the company announced it would bring on 2,000 more workers to build a new vehicle at its Chattanooga plant.

In addition, Mayor Andy Berke said VW is looking to start initial hiring in the fourth quarter of this year and then staff up in stages. He said plant construction is to kick off late this year as well, as VW invests $600 million in the project.

Berke said Wednesday he pushed for both downtown measures in meetings with VW about the company's plans to assemble the new sport utility vehicle here.

"I was adamant we have VW's commitment beyond the manufacturing plant," Berke said. VW's welcome center and its participation in the innovation district are written into a memorandum of understanding between the parties.

VW originally eyed a site off Interstate 75 near its Enterprise South industrial park plant for the welcome center, but now officials are looking for a location in downtown's "business and tourism district," the memorandum said.

Berke said a concept for the welcome center hasn't been developed. The mayor said officials want an experience that helps downtown's brand and increases VW's customer base. Plans call for the welcome center to be ready within two years.

City and county government would match the company's contribution, up to $6 million, to pay for the facility.

Downtown advocates are enthusiastic about the welcome center's possibilities.

Tennessee Aquarium chief Charlie Arant said the right location is key.

"The big question is what type of center will it be and where's the best location for it," he said.

Arant said VW has "a heck of a story to tell. I'd want to tell that strong story. We need people who know what they're doing to create this type of experience to help us."

Bob Doak, the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau president, said the center could turn into another attraction for downtown.

Using the "best and brightest designers" for the project to create an experience that showcases downtown and VW will help attract visitors to the city, Doak said.

"VW and the city made a great decision to have it on our front porch; that gives it great visibility," he said.

Scott Wilson, a Chattanooga VW spokesman, said the company's expansion is the next step in its growth, and the welcome center and innovation district projects represent "a deepening of our partnerships here locally and with the state of Tennessee."

Berke said he sees the German automaker pairing with startup businesses and entrepreneurs in the innovation district, which are geographic areas where leading-edge companies, research institutions, start-ups and business incubators are located in dense proximity.

A recent Brookings Institution study found that such districts are turning many metropolitan cities into tech magnets for more open and collaborative research.

"What I wanted to do is get VW to connect to the city and our brand," Berke said, adding he has Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's support. "An anchor entity like VW is a big win."

Arant said downtown makes sense for the welcome center.

"Downtown is where the people are," he said. "If you have to go out [to Enterprise South] and intercept them off the highway, that's not easily done."

Berke said VW was trying to find the right concept for the Enterprise South site, but couldn't find one that fit.

Doak said that after BMW built its welcome center, or Zentrum, next to its Greer, S.C., assembly plant, some people in the area later wished they had raised it in the downtown of much larger Greenville.

"The number of eyes and people would have been much higher," he said. "It would have given it an increased visibility and branding opportunity."

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