Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Thomas Zacharia, Oak Ridge National Laboratory director,

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tennessee economic recruiters landed both the biggest one-time capital investment and the largest job expansion in state history last month.

In mid April, the tech giant Oracle Corp. announced plans to relocate some of its California operations to Nashville, bringing 8,500 jobs and a $1.2 billion investment in Middle Tennessee. Just a week later, General Motors and the Korean battery maker LG Chem announced a joint venture to build a $2.3 billion Ultium Cells battery plant next to the GM plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The Oracle announcement is the biggest single job addition ever announced in Tennessee and the Ultium Cells battery plant is the largest single investment announced at one time in Tennessee, although Wacker Chemical in Charleston has grown to become an even bigger $2.5 billion investment over the past decade.

Tennessee's chief economic recruiter, Bob Rolfe, said the state is seeing a surge in business prospects looking at building or expanding in the Volunteer State.

"Earlier this year, it was like the world reawakened," said Rolfe, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. "The robust pipeline today is unlike the pipeline I've experienced before during my four a half years at ECD."

Over the past month, the state has also announced expansions at the Robinson textile manufacturing plant in Dayton and Memphis Contract Packaging in Somerville that collectively will add over 350 jobs and a new equipment manufacturer and a new call center in Knoxville that will combine to add nearly 500 more jobs.

Rolfe told the TVA board this week that Tennessee is benefiting by both recruiting businesses from elsewhere and growing hometown companies, especially as the economy rebounds from the pandemic. Rolfe said Tennessee's economic recruitment is aided by its successful partnerships, including support from the Tennessee Valley Authority with industrial power rates among the lowest 10% of all U.S. utilities and economic development assistance and credit program TVA offers for new and expanding businesses.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Commissioner Bob Rolfe of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

Since the start of its current fiscal year that began last October, TVA has attracted nearly $4 billion of new capital investment with over 45,000 jobs in its 7—state region.

"This is a significant result for our team that has worked tirelessly during this pandemic in very unusual circumstances," said Jeannette Mills, executive vice president and chief external relations officer at TVA.

Mills said TVA has continued to attract business prospects despite the economic slowdown in 2020. Over the past five years, TVA has recruited $45.4 billion of investment and added or retained 341,000 jobs and the current fiscal year is likely to sustain that growth pace across the Tennessee Valley, Mills said.

TVA also is partnering with private businesses and other government agencies for further growth. On Thursday, TVA said it is partnering with Kairos Power to help with engineering and licensing support for Kairos' plans to build a $100 million test reactor at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge over the next five years.

The Oak Ridge area could prove fertile ground for more innovation under a Biden administration effort to geographically diversify where new technologies and innovation are being developed. As part of the president's sweeping $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, the Biden White House is proposing to allocate $20 billion for at least 10 regional innovation hubs to "leverage private investment to fuel technology development, link urban and rural economies, and create new businesses in regions beyond the current handful of high-growth centers."

A study by the Brooking Institute found that just five metro areas—Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego — accounted for more than 90% of the nation's innovation-sector growth during the years 2005 to 2017. Fully one-third of the nation's innovation jobs reside in just 16 counties, and more than half are concentrated in 41 counties.

Dr. Thomas Zacharia, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he hopes that East Tennessee can become more of an innovation hub utilizing the resources of ORNL, the Department of Energy's largest lab, along with TVA and the University of Tennessee.

"I've always been intrigued by the fact that we are a community that has the nation's largest public utility (TVA), the nation's largest science and energy laboratory (ORNL) and the state's land grant university (the University of Tennessee) and yet we are not on the map when it comes to the innovation ecosytem of the nation," he said.

Zacharia said ORNL, TVA and UT are working on more partnerships to develop an innovation hub and secure some of the federal funding that may be made available for new R&D efforts outside of the current hubs on the East and West coasts.

"I think we represent a really strong opportunity (for an innovation hub)," he said. "We have begun the process (of trying to be included and hopefully we will soon announce a TechStars accelerator for this region for the industries of the future that will create 30 companies over the next three years. They will come here from all over the world, create the jobs and the entrepreneurial eco-system that we can then build upon."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.