* May 2017 - Nokian announces $360 million plant for Dayton
* August - Groundbreaking set for site with 135-acre building pad planned to handle first and potential added phases.
* Jan. 1, 2018 - Site slated to be ready for Nokian to begin building the plant
* Mid-2019 - Test tires to be manufactured at the plant
* Early 2020 - Nokian to be in full production
Source: Nokian and Rhea County
DAYTON, Tenn. — Standing in a green pasture a few miles from downtown, Nokian Tyres' North American chief on Wednesday called its planned tire-making plant a milestone for the company.
"We'll be building the most modern tire factory in the world," Nokian's Tommi Heinonen said about the $360 million facility that will be the Finnish manufacturer's first in the United States.
With two plants in Europe, Nokian will hire 400 people in its first phase at the new Dayton factory that Heinonen said will position Nokian as a key player in the all-season tire business.
"We're known for our winter tires," he said. "But we want to have the all-season tire business grow nationwide."
The 830,000-square-foot plant is expected to start making auto, SUV, light truck and off-road tires by early 2020 and will play a big role in Nokian doubling annual sales in North America in five years, Heinonen said.
Dennis Tumlin, Rhea County's executive director of economic and community development, termed the factory "a game-changer."
"It's a transformational project for us," he said. "I think it will be felt over the next 50 years."
Dayton Mayor Gary Louallen said he thinks Nokian will be "a magnet" to other businesses and potential new residents.
"People will follow them in," he said. "It's a draw."
Sam Wills, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development's regional director, said Nokian could eventually hire 1,000 people if it makes the commitment to build additional phases and expands the factory.
"They've come here with a purpose and a plan," he said.
Rhea County had the state's highest unemployment rate in April of any of Tennessee's 95 counties with 6.6 percent of the workforce out of work that month. Rhea County has been hit with a spate of plant shutdowns or layoffs, including plans by automotive supplier International Automotive Components, or IAC, to cut its local workforce by about 160 employees between July and September.
Nokian will begin hiring gradually with most of the new jobs filled in 2019.
Tumlin said there's a site where Chattanooga State Community College could put a branch campus near the plant it it eventually chooses to do so. But, short-term, plans are to use CSCC's main campus to help train personnel, he said.
"It has been actively involved in recruiting from day one," Tumlin said. "They went to the Russian [Nokian] factory with us. There will be resources applied to bring this factory to life for Nokian."
Heinonen said Nokian started with 80 different potential locations for its first North American plant, and 24 sites were visited.
"What finally makes the difference is local and state commitment," he said. "There was definitely a make-it-happen attitude."
Wills said that the state's passage of the IMPROVE Act played a role in landing Nokian. The law adopted by state lawmakers this spring raises fuel taxes by up to 6 cents a gallon for the state's highway fund while cutting franchise and excise taxes on manufacturers by $113.3 million.
Hans Dyhrman, Nokian's marketing director, said the planned location of the plant looks a lot like what officials are used to in Vermont, where the company has its U.S. offices.
"This looks almost identical in many ways," he said.
Tumlin said the 330-acre site will have a new Nokian Tyres Drive built directly to nearby U.S. 27.
The plant will feature a 105-foot-tall warehouse with an automated tire retrieval system, Tumlin said.
"I hope they put a banner on that," he quipped. "It would be very visible on U.S. 27."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.