Future of GE Power's coveted Chattanooga land uncertain

A portion of the Alstom plant is seen Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo The Alstom plant is seen from Point Park on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

Hamilton County officials aren't ruling out any future uses for the valuable riverfront land which holds the GE Power manufacturing plants the company plans to shut down before year's end.

New manufacturing, an industrial park, and commercial and residential space are all seen as potential uses for the site on about 70 acres on the edge of Chattanooga's growing downtown.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said manufacturing is more suited for the tract where plants make nuclear and fossil-fuel steam-generating equipment.

"I'm hopeful that somewhere down the line there may be something so it could continue to be job producing," he said about the former Alstom property, adding that "I wouldn't rule out any possibility."

GE Power said Tuesday's it's closing the manufacturing sites and laying off most of its workforce, cutting 235 jobs. Late last year, the U.S.-based giant completed a $10.6 billion acquisition of the power and transmission division of France-based Alstom.

Bill Kilbride, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, said the site's future use will depend on what GE Power decides to do with the Riverfront Parkway parcel.

About 50 GE employees in engineering, commercial and other functions will remain in the city, and a GE Power spokesman said the location's future is "under review" by the company.

Kilbride said there are unique, high-quality equipment at the plant, where Alstom spent about $300 million over the past decade, including building a 350,000-square-foot facility.

"Would they let [other] people take that technology?" he asked, adding that the current GE Power workforce is a skilled and talented one.

Still, he said, the site ultimately could become mixed use. Just up Riverfront Parkway from the tract, former manufacturing parcels are being repurposed into new housing and commercial space in an estimated $100 million project called Cameron Harbor.

This spring, a Nashville developer bought property next to Alstom on the Tennessee River, some of which formerly served as a car lot, where officials believe another $100 million in new mixed-use development eventually could occur.

David DeVaney, president of Chattanooga commercial real estate broker NAI Charter Real Estate Corp., said the GE Power manufacturing space is highly technical, requires skilled labor and creates "great-paying" jobs.

"It's the kind of industry Chattanooga embraces," he said. "It's a clean industry. There's not a lot of noise and odor pollution."

DeVaney said the GE Power structures, some of which have high ceilings and massive cranes, are hard to find.

"There are only a handful of buildings in the state similar to this property," he said. "It's quite a marketing tool for Chattanooga to recruit new industry and jobs."

DeVaney said if the highest and best use is more mixed-use commercial and residential, it could take a lot of work to transition a heavy industry site.

"It can't be done without a lot of headache and substantial cooperation from [environmental regulators]," he said.

Also, already there are former industrial sites not far away, the 140-acre Wheland Foundry and U.S. Pipe locations, where developers have been trying to recruit new users for years, DeVaney said.

Last year, a local group paid Alstom $3.5 million for a large tract off Riverfront Parkway. Alstom had leased the property to SIAG Aerisyn, a wind tower maker that went bankrupt. DeVaney said that parcel is being marketed to industrial users.

He also said there's the idea that Chattanooga and Hamilton County could gain control of the property.

"If the city controlled it, it would give the city flexibility to recruit manufacturing" or find an alternative user, DeVaney said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he has spoken to GE leadership and they're committed "to work with us to find a solution" regarding tax breaks the city and county granted to Alstom to encourage its expansion. Those property tax breaks were granted in 2008 based upon Alstom adding 300 jobs following its $300 million expansion.

In July 2015, Alstom agreed to pay more in property taxes to the city and county because of its failure to reach its jobs goals. The company was to pay more than $630,000 a year in new taxes for the remaining eight years of its tax incentive agreement.

Coppinger said he plans to keep open the lines of communication with GE Power moving forward.

"The city and county are working jointly," he said.

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