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VOL. 41 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 10, 2017

Clarksville rebounds from Hemlock’s sting

By Joe Morris

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Korean Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Joo Hyung-hwan, left, is applauded by Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan during a February announcement that South Korean appliance maker LG Electronics Inc. had selected Clarksville as the site for its washing machine plant in the United States. The 829,000-square-foot facility is projected to cost $250 million and create 600 new jobs.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

When the $1.2-billion Hemlock Semiconductor plant failed to materialize, it was a sizeable blow to growth and development in Clarksville and Montgomery County.

As time has passed, the sting of that giant loss has faded, particularly as some high-profile players, Google, Hankook Tire and now LG Electronics have found a home in the county, including taking over some of the Hemlock land.

Feb. 28, Gov. Bill Haslam presided over a joyous press conference in which he announced that LG is bringing a $250 million plant and 600 jobs to Montgomery County.

The addition of LG, which will be built at Corporate Business Park North, is yet another high-profile win in the hyperactive Middle Tennessee region.

Like their neighbors to the south, Montgomery County and Clarksville are capitalizing on their proximity to the continuing boom in Nashville and Davidson County, but the county is also working to sell their own differentiators as well, says Mike Evans, executive director of the Montgomery County Industrial Development Board.

“We do align a lot of our recruitment efforts to industry sectors that are here, or that have expressed interest in the area,” Evans says.

“We keep tabs on what TVA is doing, and what the state of Tennessee is doing, because those are two strong partners who send us a lot of industries who’ve reached out to them.”

The county has in recent time focused on the automotive industry, as well as back-office operations, distribution, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

It also has been able to turn lemons into lemonade, as it did when it took 833 acres of land from what was to have been Hemlock, a high-profile operation that shuttered before becoming operational, and flipped some of that property to LG as part of a 310-acre, $250 million 829,000-square-foot facility deal.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In addition to the LG deal, which is estimated to bring 600 jobs with future growth already being talked about, Montgomery County is about to cut the ribbon on Hankook Tire’s plant, an $800 million facility in Clarksville.

Like LG, Hankook is a South Korean company, and having those two names here could fuel addition interest from that company. Hankook, for example, is already slated to move its North American headquarters from New Jersey to downtown Nashville.

And then there’s Google, which is opening a $600 million data center that’s also on the former Hemlock turf.

All told, these projects and others are helping the city and county post some gaudy numbers: The Clarksville MSA ranked 19th in the nation for fastest job growth, according to a report by 24/7 Wall St., that was released by the development agency. It stated that the area added more than 4,700 jobs between October 2015 and October 2016.

For Evans, the trick is to capitalize on the area’s current hot status in terms of visibility, and then tell interested corporations and developers about the evergreen nature of what’s here.

“Data centers want to come here because of TVA,” he explains. “We are in the center of an excellent electrical grid, and TVA has put together a special package to attract those businesses. Companies want that access to a reliable and high-volume source of power.”

He also meets regularly with his counterparts throughout Middle Tennessee, either in one-off conversations or as part of larger entities such as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Partnership 2020, which Clarksville and Montgomery County joined at its founding in 2000.

“We’re maybe the only county that doesn’t touch Davidson who is participating, but we wanted to be at the table there because if someone’s coming to see us, they’re going to fly through the Nashville airport,” Evans says.

“That organization, and others that we belong to, have been very helpful to all of us as we share information and help each other recruit new business.”

It also helps to have friends around Middle Tennessee when it comes to overcoming barriers such as an aging and increasingly inadequate transportation infrastructure.

“We’re all focused on that now, because we have to keep our workforce mobile,” Evans explains.

“We are at the center of 76 percent of the U.S. population, so we’ve got the location. But, if you’re going to make something, you have to get it to the people you’re going to sell it to, and so we need all our transportation modes to be working effectively.”

And, he adds, “you have to look at where your workforce is coming from. We have an advantage because of Fort Campbell and the people who retire from the military.

“They are settled in here, with homes and kids in our schools, but we also are going to have to bring in workers from around the area and so we need to make sure they can get here.”

One potential trouble spot that’s been smoothed out is available land, and Evans credits that to city and county leaders who were willing to snap up large parcels on spec a few years back. It’s an investment that continues to pay big dividends.

“About 17 years ago we were out of land for a while,” Evans points out. “We didn’t have enough government-controlled land for recruitment purposes, so we lobbied our local governments to buy more than 1,000 acres of land. They gave us more than $28 million to do that, so we not only bought the land, but we also put in the infrastructure that companies would need.

“There’s a big difference between a shovel-ready industrial park and an industrial cornfield.

“That changed our position in recruiting, and since then we’ve done that a couple more times. We’re taking reasonable, calculated risks, and we think that we’ll be successful if we keep doing so.”

Taking the long view toward development is nothing new for Billy Atkins, chairman and chief executive officer of Legends Bank who is the industrial board’s current chair.

He’s on his third six-year term, and so can easily reach back to the moves made several years ago that take today’s recruiting possible.

“We have great support from both governments here, and the work that’s been done means that we are now continuously fielding calls from consultants,” Atkins explains.

“We hear from people directly, and also from other counties who may not have what they need, and so send them to us.

“We also get calls from referrals made by the state, and by TVA. The business comes to us a lot of ways, but only because we have the right size tract of land, as well as the other infrastructure needs that someone may need. We get the prospects because we have product on the shelf to sell them.”

Now, he says, the trick will be to not only keep those Fort Campbell retirees, but also tap into Austin Peay University’s 10,000-member student body and snag some of those graduates as soon as they cross the stage.

“Our workforce, both real and potential, is a great attraction to consultants,” Atkins says.

“They help us sell Clarksville and Montgomery County. Keeping them here will help us continue to build out from the opportunities we have now, and keep bringing in these world-renowned companies.

“That brings the kind of attention to Montgomery County that you can’t pay for, and so we have to make sure that we have everything in place when those calls come in.”

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