VOL. 41 | NO. 48 | Friday, December 1, 2017
Megasite funds a godsend for the state’s rural counties
By Joe Morris
Tennessee’s rural governments have tight budgets during the best of times. That means developing industrial land is often a pipe dream, which is why those on the ground say that the state’s site-certification programs and related grants are game changers for any chance rural lawmakers have of luring in large-scale businesses, with their accompanying jobs and tax dollars.
That’s why those local officials are only too happy to come to the bargaining table whenever they can and drag some locally owned acreage along with them, says Mike Evans, executive director of the Montgomery County Industrial Development Board
“For any community, but especially the smaller, rural ones, this kind of assistance is very important,” Evans explains. “It’s the difference between having something to market and try to bring in jobs, or not being able to do so.”
And, he adds, the state-local partnership on land is the lowest cost of an incentives package.
“In today’s recruitment world, a community has to be ready to offer incentives as far as tax abatements go,” Evans acknowledges. “If we don’t give up 30 percent of whatever, that’s 60 percent we’re not going to get.
“If you give up nothing, you’re not going to get anything. But you don’t even get to that point if you don’t have a good site, one that’s been developed and documented. That’s why these sites, and the programs to develop them, are important.”
Coming at the other side of the chicken-egg equation is the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which says there’s too much focus sometimes on the potential when it comes to development.
“Get the deal first,” says Mark Cunningham, director of communications at the center.
“Don’t spend millions building out a road to nowhere, but get that company on board and then put in the roads and other things. That’s a better use of our money than building all this stuff up front and having nobody committed to using it.”
In Warren County, the north and south offerings of Mountain View Industrial Park are on offer by the McMinnville-Warren County Industrial Development Board, which talks up everything from soil quality to local workforce with potential tenants, says Don Alexander, director of economic development.
“We’re on a nice site with very little rock, and near a four-lane divided highway that’s interstate equivalent,” Alexander adds. “And we’re just 12 miles from I-24.
“We’ve worked hard to get these sites to where they are really attractive, and that costs,’’ he points out. “When I speak to civic groups, I explain to them that it’s like seeing a beautiful meadow where you’d like a home, but then you see another meadow where there’s already water, sewer and sidewalks in place.
“You’re probably going to pick that one. And as a bonus, you have the state helping you sell it, which makes a company feel good and confident about taking a look.”
Alexander has a background as an economist, so he gets both sides of the incentives conversation. Still, he says, getting land ready is an easy cost to justify either paired with, or separate from, other incentives.
“Time is of the essence to most manufacturers now, and what the state has done is help us to the point where they are making money instead of building and then making money,” he says.
“That’s a distinct advantage. It’s more of an investment in our community than it is just money being given to help individuals come in and establish themselves.
“But even when you do give those incentives, that operator is starting to employ people, they are building, they are hiring. They’re buying breakfast, fixing their shoes and paying taxes.
“They are getting a deal, but they are also giving us growth potential so that we have business coming in and helping grow our infrastructure vs. having to raise taxes.”
Capitalizing on the state’s willingness to help shoulder development costs makes sense no matter what your take is on other aspects of business recruitment, says Eddie Crittendon, chief executive officer of McNairy County Economic & Community Development.
“The certified sites program and the development grants are great concepts for small, rural counties like ours,” Crittendon points out.
“We’ll never have a megasite here, but we do have land, and the creating of these investment partnerships means that we can get a site ready. It’s a real big benefit for rural people to have something shovel-ready when we do get visitors in, and a positive thing that we really need in our toolshed.”
He, too, says that incentives can be worrying, particularly when they get large and without some benchmarks a business must hit to keep qualifying for them over time.
Even so, he adds, that they’re part of the business world today, and the goal remains what it has always been: strike the best deal for your community.
“When a company comes in with 200 or 300 jobs, and spends tens of millions of dollars to get operational, we are going to get that early money back tenfold,” he says, adding that the certified sites program, grants and related programs are incentive packages in their own way as well.
“We don’t even get a chance without having the land ready to go, and it doesn’t cost the state much to help us make that happen,” Crittendon acknowledges.
“They are investing in communities, often rural communities that just don’t have development money in their budgets. We may not be able to compete with major Metro areas for every company, but at least this way we have something offer. At least we’re in the game.”