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Staff photo by Mike Pare / A sign notes the East Chattanooga construction site of the Nippon Paint facility in the background.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, to state the factory will be built on 30 acres.

Nippon Paint has steel beams up at the building site of its planned East Chattanooga plant, and the city is restarting talks with the community as the pandemic eases to bolster the struggling neighborhood.

"The name of the game here is to get it back on the tax roll," said Jermaine Freeman, the city's interim director for economic development, about the longtime site of the former Harriet Tubman housing project.

Nippon Paint is building a $61 million auto paint factory on nearly 30 acres to supply the Mazda-Toyota assembly plant going up in Huntsville, Alabama.

Freeman said at a meeting of the city's Industrial Development Board on Monday that the Nippon plant should start operating next spring. Hiring for the initial 150 people who are to work at the factory should begin this fall or winter, he said.

"They lost a little bit of time due to the pandemic," he said. "They may be a little behind schedule."

Also delayed were efforts to engage people who live and work in the surrounding neighborhood on what they'd like to see on 14 acres the city still owns adjacent to Nippon. Freeman said that initiative began just before the pandemic hit in spring 2020.

Now, Chattanooga Design Studio is putting together a plan and budget to restart conversations with the neighborhood. The hope is to have that plan in hand in July and then resume talks with the community with a goal of having that complete this year, Freeman said.

Then, he said, a request for proposals for a master developer can be issued to help spur activity on the 14-acre tract in the neighborhood.

Skip Ireland, the board's chairman, said the effort will bring back a blighted neighborhood.

"It's an exciting program," he said.

The city gave Nippon much of a nearly 50-acre tract to entice the Japanese manufacturer.

In 2020, the city loaned the board $4 million for a $1.5 million extension of Hardy Street, designed by ASA Engineering, into the former housing project to make way for the 270,000-square-foot factory.

Also, some of the $4 million loan will go toward helping the master developer on the city-owned 14 acres to build sidewalks, put up streetlights and cover paving costs for future development there.

The loan will be repaid over 20 years with the extra taxes generated by Nippon and other development.

Light industrial businesses, retail, and other commercial projects are potential additions, Freeman said.

"There's nothing on the site on the part owned by the city," he said. "It's not generating any tax revenue. That's not good. But 14 acres is enough to do something."

The Harriet Tubman housing complex was located in East Chattanooga from 1953 to 2012 until it was demolished.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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