CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bill Lee's first executive order as Tennessee governor last year directed all executive departments to "place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas," where the state's economic growth has lagged in recent years.
On Friday, Lee's top economic officials made good on that pledge by distributing checks in Bradley and McMinn counties to aid industrial development and rural broadband extensions.
Bob Rolfe, commissioner of economic and community development development, distributed a $1 million check to develop part of the new Spring Branch Industrial Park in Cleveland, $525,000 in matching funds for sewer extensions elsewhere in Bradley County and $1.3 million for broadband extensions by the Volunteer Energy Cooperative in McMinn County.
"We're committed to helping rural Tennessee," Rolfe said.
As the state's chief economic recruiter, Rolfe said business prospects are improving in Tennessee with recent global trade agreements now in place for the phase 1 agreement with China and the revamped NAFTA treaty with Mexico and Canada.
"The good news is that our prospect pipeline is very robust right now so the more inventory that we're able to possess, the higher the likelihood that we will win more projects," Rolfe said. "The communities that have the most attractive and shovel-ready sites are positioned to be the most successful."
The $1 million grant awarded Friday to the Bradley County Industrial Development Board will be used to clear and grade 30 acres in the 331-acre Spring Creek Industrial Park, which the city of Cleveland and Bradley County have jointly developed off of Exit 20 on Interstate 75 along AP 40, just 12 miles from the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga.
Bradley County Mayor Gary Davis said the infrastructure for the park is now in place and the new grant will get a second 30-acre site "pad read" for any business to immediately begin building a potential plant.
"With its close proximity to Volkswagen, we hope to get some tier 1 suppliers," Davis said. "We've had pretty good interest already and we're pretty far along in our discussions with a couple of prospects."
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, a former state representative in Cleveland who helped secure some of the initial state funding for the interchange and park development while he was still in the Legislature, said the Spring Creek Industrial Park "is the most desirable property in East Tennessee for any industry."
"This project started under Gov. (Phil) Bredesen, continued under Gov. (Bill) Haslam, and now is also getting support from Gov. (Bill) Lee," Brooks said. "It's a great partnership and now we want to make sure we get the right businesses to use this great asset."
Gov. Lee is also trying to aid rural areas where broadband internet connections are lacking and educational, health care and business links are beyond the digital reach of today's web-based economy.
Statewide, the Federal Communications Commission estimates more than 600,000 Tennesseans lack access to broadband services. The state is providing $20 million of funds this year and Lee has proposed $25 million in next year's state budget to aid local electric and telephone cooperatives and commercial internet providers to extend broadband ervice into remote areas.
On Friday, Rolfe distributed two broadband accessibility grants for McMinn and Monroe counties to extend broadband services to another 1,600 citizens in rural areas of the state.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.