Wacker CEO says PIE Innovation Center in Bradley County gives competitive edge

Staff photo by Mike Pare / Visitors enter the Wacker Commons event space at the PIE Innovation Center on Tuesday in Cleveland, Tenn.
Staff photo by Mike Pare / Visitors enter the Wacker Commons event space at the PIE Innovation Center on Tuesday in Cleveland, Tenn.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Wacker's global chief executive said Tuesday the PIE Innovation Center, which focuses on developing Bradley County's workforce, is a competitive edge for the manufacturer and other companies.

"It's a really unique setup," CEO Christian Hartel said in an interview prior to an official naming of 14,000-square-feet of event space at the PIE Center as Wacker Commons.

The multipurpose space was partly funded from a $1 million gift given to the PIE Center by the German polysilicon maker that has a 750-worker plant in nearby Charleston, Tennessee.

(READ MORE: Wacker boosts workforce training center)

The PIE Center, which takes its name from partnerships in industry and education, is a $34.5 million education and training facility that had its grand opening in November. It's a partnership of the local public schools, colleges, the private sector, nonprofit organizations and the state.

"For us, it's important to have great people working for us," Hartel said about the Wacker plant in Charleston, which was Southeast Tennessee's biggest-ever single manufacturing investment at $2.5 billion when it opened in 2016. The factory makes polysilicon for use in solar panels and semiconductors as well as pyrogenic silica used in a variety of consumer products from toothpaste to paint.

The company is creating career jobs in Bradley County, David Wilhoit, chief executive of Wacker Chemical Corp. in the United States, said at the event. The plant helps Wacker provide polysilicon for one of every four semiconductors produced worldwide, he said.

"When we looked around for opportunities ... we wanted a community where we could grow," he said, adding the local plant sits on 550 acres.

The opening of the PIE Center was the culmination of a seven-year dream, said Linda Cash, Bradley County's director of schools, to about 50 people at Wacker Commons.

"This is only the beginning of partnerships with Wacker," she said.

The company didn't just invest in a building but in people, Cash said.

Brittany Cannon, the PIE Center's executive director, told the group Wacker hosted her and others in 2018 in Germany, where they learned about the German education system and the nation's values. The company has helped realize the local community's dreams, she said.

Wacker Commons hosted a reception for 800 sophomores earlier Tuesday, Cannon said.

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Wacker has about a 100-year history, Doug Berry, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development, said in an interview.

Wacker is in the county "for the long haul" and will need more trained employees, he said.

In November, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the facility, where students are trained and work in a variety of technical and medical careers in programs designed by local industry leaders.

The renovated former uniform-production factory that was one of the county's largest employers eventually should have about 600 to 800 students in training, officials said.

The center has "an opportunity to change people's lives," Lee said last year. "The state with the workforce will win in the future."

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

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