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Michael Horn

Volkswagen is closing in on both a concept and a location for its proposed downtown Chattanooga welcome center, with the popular riverfront area seen as the leading contender.

"You go fishing where the fish are," said Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Bob Doak about a potential site on or near the waterfront. "It's going to give them maximum exposure."

Michael Horn, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive, said the automaker is finalizing the concept for the $12 million center, which some city leaders see as the next big attraction downtown.

"We're still working a little bit on the concept -- what to do precisely," said Horn at the North American International Auto Show last week. "We've made some advancements."

Horn said he expects that by the end of March, "we'll know pretty much what we want to do."

Kim White, who heads the nonprofit downtown redevelopment group River City Company, said she's hopeful the welcome center is interactive for visitors.

She added that she'd like to see the center highlight technology, since Chattanooga has access to ultrafast Internet speeds through EPB.

White also said the riverfront makes sense because it's used by visitors and locals alike.

"Coming off the interstate and the exposure it would give to visitors is fantastic," she said. "I think it would be a huge addition to the riverfront."

Horn said the German automaker is focusing on technology in its vehicles.

"We're looking at connectivity," he said. "It's a totally different ballgame [in America] compared to Europe right now."

A welcome center gives an automaker a chance to show off its vehicles and tell its story.

At the Detroit auto show, Horn said the company is trying to regain traction in the U.S. While sales for the VW brand fell in the first nine months of 2014, the last quarter's numbers were up 3.7 percent over the same period in 2013, he said.

The VW executive said the carmaker is positioning itself so that key units, such as its compact and midsize sedans and sport utility vehicles, will be assembled in North America.

"That's really what we were fighting for in the last year," Horn said. Around those vehicle platforms, VW then potentially can produce other versions, such as the Cross Coupe GTE sport utility vehicle, the concept it unveiled in Detroit.

"We'll have options to look at different derivatives to build," Horn said.

Doak said the welcome center can put VW in front of millions of people every year who'll "have the opportunity to understand what the VW brand is and what it stands for."

"I think people will find it educational and entertaining," he said, adding the riverfront is Chattanooga's "family-friendly entertainment zone. I couldn't think of a better place where it could create density, intensity and vibrancy."

White said she likes the idea of highlighting things that are authentically Chattanooga.

"VW is definitely one of those," she said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he pushed for the downtown welcome center during talks about VW's plant expansion last year. VW originally eyed a site off Interstate 75 near the Enterprise South industrial park plant for the welcome center, but never moved ahead.

Plans call for the welcome center to be ready within about a year and a half.

City and county government would match the company's contribution, up to $6 million, to pay for the facility as part of a memorandum of understanding between the parties.

VW is spending $900 million to expand the plant for SUV production, and it plans to hire 2,000 more workers.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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