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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The huge Amazon fulfillment center processes orders in the Enterprise South facility. Amazon has taken steps to combat the coronavirus and safeguard the health of the workers at their CHA1 fulfillment center.

Recruiting industrial prospects to locate in the Tennessee Valley has usually involved personal pitches and site tours, in addition to economic incentives often negotiated during the site selection process.

To show off properties in its seven-state region, the Tennessee Valley Authority even bought a $6.95 million executive helicopter previously used by billionaire Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in 2016 to offer aerial tours of available sites for new industry.

The COVID-19 virus has ended such group helicopter tours and limited travel and site visits for many prospects. Instead of personal helicopter tours, TVA is using drones to provide aerial video to prospects considering sites in the Valley.

"We're doing a lot more virtual pitches and meetings online these days which is certainly a change in a relationship- oriented business like economic development, " said John Bradley, vice president of economic development at TVA. "The good news is that we are not alone in having to make these changes and, considering the economic challenges we have faced, we continue to see strong activity and interest in our region."

Indeed, despite the pandemic-induced economic downturn this spring which shut down many businesses and halted expansion plans by many others, TVA still attracted $8.6 billion of new investments and retained or attracted 67,000 jobs in fiscal 2020. Lured by cheaper energy, taxes, land and labor in the Valley compared with many other parts of the United States, prospects continue to look at the Tennessee Valley for new projects or expansions, TVA officials said.

"New businesses and industries are locating or expanding in communities from Memphis, Tennessee to Bowling Green, Kentucky and from Olive Branch, Mississippi to Calhoun, Georgia," TVA President Jeff Lyash told utility directors during their quarterly board meeting this month.

Investment in the Tennessee Valley

Over the past decade, TVA’s economic development division has worked to recruit or grow more than $76 billion of investment in the Tennessee Valley from projects that collectively have added more than 500,000 new jobs.

2011: $4.9 billion and 43,000 jobs

2012: $5.9 billion and 48,500 jobs

2013: $4.1 billion and 39,000 jobs

2014: $8.5 billion and 60,300 jobs

2015: $7.8 billion and 76,200 jobs

2016: $8.3 billion and 72,100 jobs

2017: $8.2 billion and 70,076 jobs

2018: $11.3 billion and 65,400

2019: $9 billion and 66,000 jobs

2020: $8.6 billion and 67,000 jobs

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

TVA's economic development program, which works along with state, local and private agencies to promote growth in the region, has been recognized by Site Selection magazine as a top utility for economic development for 15 consecutive years during which time TVA has helped recruit or retain nearly $100 billion of investments and over 500,000 jobs.

Site Selection has also recognized four of the seven states served by TVA — North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia — among the top 10 states for their business climates to promote economic growth.

For its part, TVA focuses upon offering reliable, low-cost power for new prospects while its $18 million-a-year economic development division also aids in a host of training, recruitment and site and staff development programs.

In fiscal 2020, such efforts continued to pay off in automotive manufacturing, distribution and transportation, and food services, Bradley said.

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Akio Toyoda, right, Toyota Motor Corp., speaks as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, center, Masamichi Kogai, Mazda Motor Corp. president and CEO, listen during a press conference, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala., where the Japanese automakers announced plans to build a huge $1.6 billion joint-venture plant in Huntsville, that will eventually employ about 4,000 people. Several states had competed for the coveted project, which will be able to turn out 300,000 vehicles per year and will produce the Toyota Corolla compact car for North America and a new small SUV from Mazda. (Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

The biggest new job generator in 2020 was Amazon, which announced plans for new fulfillment and distribution centers in Memphis, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and Olive Branch, Mississippi that combined will add 2,500 jobs.

Since locating its first fulfillment centers in the region a decade ago in Chattanooga and Charleston, Tennessee, Amazon has emerged as one of Tennessee's biggest employers and businesses after adding other distribution facilities in Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Nashville and Memphis and announcing plans in 2018 for a $230 million operations center in Nashville that will eventually employ 5,000 workers. Over the past decade, Amazon has already invested more than $6.5 billion and created 6,500 direct hires and an additional 6,000 indirect jobs, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Top projects in 2020

* Mazda Toyota Manufacturing is investing another $830 million to its previously announced $1.6 billion automotive plant in Huntsville, Alabama that will create 4,000 jobs.

* Amazon announced plans for fulfillment and distribution centers in Memphis and Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and Olive Branch, Mississippi that will collectively add 2,500 jobs.

* Agero Inc., which offers driver assistance and accident management, is adding 900 jobs through a $2 million office expansion in Clarksville, Tennessee.

* Ramsey Solutions, the personal financial planning business started by radio talk show host Dave Ramsey, is adding 600 jobs through a $52 million expansion in Franklin, Tennessee.

* SmileDirectClub is investing $34 million to add a second facility in Columbia, Tennessee to add 600 jobs.

* TTI Floor Care North America will invest $20 million to expand its factory in Cookeville, Tennessee to add 500 jobs.

* McKee Foods Corp., is expanding its Apison Pike plant and corporate headquarters in Collegedale with a $500 million investment over the next 15 years that will add 482 jobs.

* Facebook is building an $800 million data center in Gallatin, Tennessee that will add 100 jobs.

* AutoZone is investing another $191.2 million to expand its Memphis facilities and add another 130 jobs.

* Mission Forest Products is building a $160 million sawmill in Corinth, Mississippi that will add 130 jobs.

* Southern Champion Tray will build an $85 million plant in the Riverport industrial park in Chattanooga and add 120 jobs over the next five years.

* The Wacker Group is investing another $150 million in its Charleston, Tennessee plant and adding another 50 jobs.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

The biggest new investment announced in 2020 in Southeast Tennessee came from McKee Foods Corp., the nation's largest privately-owned snack maker. At McKee's Collegedale headquarters and its nearby Apison Pike plant, McKee is planning on investing nearly $500 million and adding nearly 500 jobs over the next 15 years to further grow the $1.4 billion-a-year sales company.

The automotive industry, which has located Nissan, General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen assembly and engine plants in the Tennessee Valley over the past 25 years, continues to grow, especially among automotive suppliers for the emerging electric vehicle production by Nissan, VW and GM in Tennessee.

"We see a tremendous opportunity for electric vehicles," Lyash said.

TVA is developing a new electric rate schedule for recharging stations to help propel the growth of battery-powered cars and trucks in the region.

One of the biggest single projects being developed in the region is the gas-powered vehicle assembly plant under construction in Huntsville, Alabama by a joint venture between Toyota and Mazda. The originally announced $1.6 billion plant, which is expected to employ 4,000 workers when in full production, is getting another $830 million addition under an expansion announced by the Toyota/Mazda partnership earlier this year.

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

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