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Dakota Dumke puts together a recliner at the La-Z-Boy furniture plant on Thursday, June 2, 2016, in Dayton, Tenn.

La-Z-Boy may mean relaxation for its customers, but those making the company's signature chairs and other upholstered furniture at the company's biggest plant in Rhea County are hardly sitting down on the job.

Rhea County's biggest employer will break ground this month on a new 70,000-square-foot Innovation Center that company officials hope will improve the way furniture is designed, made and shipped from the massive 1.2 million-square-foot plant in Dayton. La-Z-Boy said Thursday it is investing $26 million to upgrade its Dayton facility — already the company's biggest, producing nearly $400 million a year in products — and add 115 jobs over the next three years.

"Having a new modern Innovation Center that provides our team of engineers and design professionals with a collaborative work environment is critical as we bring exciting new products to market," La-Z-Boy President Kurt L. Darrow said Thursday in announcing the new project. "Our company was founded with an innovative spirit almost 90 years ago and that spirit remains at the forefront of everything we do today. With the Dayton operation our largest facility, it is imperative that we make the appropriate investment to maintain a high innovation quotient throughout the business while making the plant as safe, productive and efficient as possible."

The new Innovation Center, which will have 70 to 75 engineers and other workers, will replace a smaller such facility on the site. The new complex will house a model shop, technology center, test lab and three-dimensional printing lab and is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2018.

Subsequently, La-Z-Boy will then begin a renovation and upgrade of the technology and equipment in the Dayton complex over the next year to year and a half.

La-Z-Boy has operated in Dayton since 1973 and grown the Rhea County staff to about 1,400 workers. The Dayton plant is the only La-Z-Boy-branded facility that manufactures furniture in all three upholstery categories — recliners, motion sofas and stationary upholstery, making nearly 90 percent of the various frame styles in the company's manufactured-branded product line.

In 2012, Industry Week Magazine named the Dayton Facility one of the 10 best manufacturing plants in North America.

The Dayton plant serves most of the eastern half of the United States, and Darrow said the planned expansion will help the company's products and logistics. The campus now includes a small research and development operation and supply centers for metal stamping and wood fabrication that provide material for the company's four other manufacturing sites in the United States.

Darrell Edwards, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for La-Z-Boy, said the latest investments in Dayton will enhance the plant's productivity, efficiency and safety.

"This new Innovation Center will help us to attract and recruit the best talent to our team as we seek to expand our business," Edwards said.

The final phase of the Dayton campus refresh will include the construction of a new transportation terminal to ensure the company's furniture is shipped from Dayton to retail outlets across the country.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday welcomed the latest manufacturing investment in the Volunteer State.

"La-Z-Boy has been a part of the Rhea County community for more than 40 years and we appreciate its commitment to Tennessee and for creating more than 100 new jobs in Rhea County," Haslam said in a statement.

The news comes as Rhea County struggles with the second highest jobless rate of any county in Tennessee, behind only Lake County in upper Northwest Tennessee. Rhea County has suffered a net loss in jobs in the past year after the closing of Fujifilm and Goodman Manufacturing in Dayton last year, pushing up the county's jobless rate in December to 9 percent, or nearly double the U.S. jobless rate of 4.7 percent last month.

"Rhea County is fortunate to have an industrial facility such as La-Z-Boy, a nationally known brand in the furniture industry with a great reputation for quality and customer service," Rhea County Mayor George Thacker said. "We are excited to see it grow, and the jobs created by this expansion will help boost our economy and expand our tax base."

La-Z-Boy is expected to receive state and local tax and job credits for its additional invesmtent in Dayton.

"We appreciate the various incentives we are receiving at the state and local level to assist us in completing this work," Darrow said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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