Tennessee forces taxpayers to invest in industrial parks not attracting business

Tennessee forces taxpayers to invest in industrial parks not attracting business

Tennessee officials just gave away $5.7 million to develop industrial parks in 15 rural counties, yet some county mayors can’t say whether any companies would move in.

The industrial parks are county-owned, and commissioners in those counties spent millions of their own local dollars to help build them.

The Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development, for instance, gave Gibson County $495,000 to relocate a transmission line at its industrial park.

Thomas Witherspoon (photo courtesy of Gibson County's official website)

Thomas Witherspoon (photo courtesy of Gibson County’s official website)

Without that money, Gibson County Mayor Thomas Witherspoon said, the county would likely raise property taxes to fund the project.

Witherspoon believes the industrial park will create new jobs, although he couldn’t say whether businesses would actually come. Faith is all he needs.

“I can’t answer that question. It would take a crystal ball to tell you that,” Witherspoon said, adding the county has two to 10 prospects at any given time.

“I just refuse to believe that no one will show up. I believe we will have prospects. We’re not planning and preparing for them not to show up. We just have to believe that we will build it and they will come.”

Lake County, meanwhile, will get $500,000 to improve its wastewater connections at its industrial park.

Lake County Mayor Denny Johnson said his county’s industrial park has zero businesses.

“No one is there because of a lack of utilities, but the money we’re getting for infrastructure will make that happen,” Johnson said.

“We have some companies looking at it, and they kind of gave us verbals that as soon as we get the utilities in that they’ll consider moving here,” Johnson said.

Elsewhere, ECD officials gave Lawrence County $309,985 to widen an access road at that county’s industrial park.

T.R. Williams (photo courtesy of Lawrence County's official website)

T.R. Williams (photo courtesy of Lawrence County’s official website)

Lawrence County Mayor T.R. Williams said his county’s industrial park has no definitive future prospects, but it already has a Fed-Ex distribution center.

“We are still working several projects right now. We’re getting very close on some projects. We’re landing some,” Williams told Tennessee Watchdog.

ECD gave Pulaski County $357,300 to extend its industrial park’s sewer line.

Pulaski’s park has four businesses, and County Mayor Patrick Ford said there’s room for more. He isn’t sure who, if anyone, would come.

“To say what would be coming or could be coming, I could speculate, but that’s all that would be,” Ford said.

Officials in the eight other counties that got money failed to respond to requests for comment this week.

TAXPAYER RETURN ON INVESTMENT

ECD spokesman Clint Brewer said that, since World War II, private investors rarely, if ever, use their own money to build industrial parks.

“In terms of having business prospects definitely set to occupy the industrial business parks, rightly or wrongly, however you feel about it, that’s just not the way industrial and economic development and recruitment works,” Brewer said.

Clint Brewer (photo courtesy of the Tennessee ECD's website)

Clint Brewer (photo courtesy of the Tennessee ECD’s website)

“Typically what happens is you have to have inventory on hand. Companies do site searches. They look for everything from logistics and transportation options on site, a labor shed in a given area, and the skill of a workforce. They look for any number of things that would enable them to have the kind of operation they want.”

Taxpayer dollars, Brewer said, are returning to certain communities, and the locals invest that money to boost their economies.

ECONOMC ENGINE

Mayors in the two of the four counties Tennessee Watchdog talked to have unemployment rates below the national average, about 5 percent.

Lawrence County’s unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, its lowest since 1994, according to the county’s website.

Williams said his county’s unemployment rate is low, but too many people commute outside the county for work.

Lawrence County and its surrounding areas, Williams went on, has a lot going for it outside its industrial park.

Patrick Ford (photo courtesy of Pulaski County's official website)

Patrick Ford (photo courtesy of Pulaski County’s official website)

“Agriculture is our No. 1 engine, but we also have automotive distribution and trucking here. Right now there are several automotive companies around us, and we are right in the center of that,” Williams said, throwing around names such as General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and Volkswagen.

“We are in the center of an automotive hub, and the automotive manufacturers around us require their vendors to be within an hour of them. We’re seeing mostly automotive people looking to locate in our area. It will continue to grow.”

Pulaski County’s unemployment rate, meanwhile, is 3.9 percent.

Gibson County’s unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, higher than the national average.

Lake County’s rate is 6.9 percent, a big drop from a recent high of 11.9 percent, Johnson said.

Among the eight other county industrial parks that got money, according to WJHL.com, Coffee got $163,350, Montgomery got $212,264 and Roane got $356,072.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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