Megasite Fever: East Tennessee Needs One, But Current Proposal is Not the Answer

Some months ago I wrote a column suggesting that East Tennessee needed to develop a megasite to compete with West Tennessee and duplicate Chattanooga's efforts leading to the location of the Volkswagen plant. I suggested the old American Enka site at an exit off Interstate 81, east of Knoxville.

The site has an existing sewer plant, it has all the utilities, it is on the interstate and, more importantly it has willing sellers. The plant itself is in receivership and could be purchased cheaply and the state could help with any environmental remediation for the brownfield site.

Since then, the Jefferson County Chamber has come forward to propose creating a megasite at another I-81 exit. It is rich farmland and the property owners are opposed to selling. It doesn't have utilities. Its only qualification seems to be that it is located in Jefferson County while the Enka site is just over the line in Hamblen County.

But Jefferson County is being asked to spend $450,000 on consultants, lawyers, and engineers to get a "megasite certification." The driver of this idea is the Chamber of Commerce in Jefferson County. Newspaper stories, including Sunday's News Sentinel, have examined the benefits of the megasite near Greenville, S.C., which landed a BMW plant.

Good for Greenville and, as I have suggested in the past, East Tennessee needs to be in the conversation the next time a car plant is proposed.

I understand the philosophical conflict. There are those who believe that Jefferson County should get away from being a bedroom community for Morristown and Knoxville. In recent months the county has supported:

• A body farm in New Market, run by Carson Newman University, in the middle of a farming community.

• An intermodal facility on farmland, also in New Market, built by Norfolk Southern, to bring hundreds of trucks to the site to load them on rail cars.

• The megasite, which will take almost 2,000 acres of farmland for an industrial site.

All of these projects are opposed by a coalition of property owners from each end of the county. The group argues that the intermodal facility and the megasite can be located on existing brownfields without the need to take farmland and people's homes. The body farm idea is just stupid.

One wonders how the megasite at its proposed location can succeed.

• The County Commission has said eminent domain will not be used. A dozen farm owners have notified the county they will not sell.

• County Mayor Alan Palmeri has dropped his support for the project, suggesting it go back to the drawing board. Evidently he doesn't see the prospect of TVA or the state helping with the costs and he knows his county can't swing it.

There is an argument that the American Enka site is not as large as the proposed Jefferson County site. But that plant used to employ 5,000 people and it can be developed for a fraction of the cost.

Jefferson County, like most of the counties north and east of Knoxville, needs jobs. But there is no practical benefit to the county if a large plant employing hundreds of people is located in Knox County or Hamblen County instead. It doesn't hurt Knox County for people to drive to Denso or Alcoa in Blount County then come home and spend their paychecks in the grocery stores or at the mall.

In fact, given the tax abatement that comes with locating a major industry, Jefferson County will lose the property taxes being paid by the current property owners.

Jefferson County has retirees on Douglas and Cherokee lakes, it has nice farms, it has subdivision developments like Patriot Hills. Yes, many of its citizens work in Knoxville and Morristown. So what? They spend their paychecks and they pay their property taxes in Jefferson County.

The best thing the Jefferson County Chamber can do is join with Hamblen County and Knox County, which have more resources and more political clout, and work to get a sensible and affordable megasite for all of East Tennessee.