The action came during a called session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities in which the governing body voted unanimously 5-0 to keep talks flowing between members of the Cleveland City Council, Bradley County Commission, the Cleveland/Bradley Industrial Development Board and Cleveland Utilities.
The motion was made by board Vice Chairman Eddie Cartwright and seconded by Mitchell Lyle. Also supporting the action were board Chairman Aubrey Ector and Chari Buckner, along with Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, who also holds a seat on the CU governing body.
The board’s vote stopped short of authorizing Cleveland Utilities to pitch in $2 million of the total cost in order to reduce the City Council’s and County Commission’s debt burden. Rather, it simply authorized Wheeler to lead funding negotiations in hopes of keeping the project moving ahead.
Earlier this year, the City Council passed a resolution committing to a $3 million appropriation for purchase of the 343-acre parcel provided that county commissioners match the amount. However, the County Commission has been unable to identify funding sources.
On Monday, county commissioners sent the question to members of the governing body’s finance committee for review and a recommendation.
Last week, Wheeler stressed his concern that the industrial park opportunity could be slipping away unless confirmed funding is found. The Industrial Development Board’s option on the south Bradley County property expires in October, at which time Wheeler fears its price will escalate.
Wheeler made a detailed presentation Tuesday to utility board members explaining his position, as did Doug Berry, vice president of Economic Development for the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce. At the close of his analysis, Wheeler acknowledged his request is to keep the talks going.
“I am not asking you to write a check today for $2 million,” Wheeler told board members. “I am asking for permission to sit down with city, county and industrial board representatives and see if a four-party agreement can be worked out to move the project forward.”
However, he added, “My proposal would be that we agree to finance one-third the debt of the $6 million needed to acquire the property. I would propose for the money to come from our Electric Division.”
Wheeler said the cost to Cleveland Utilities “... would be $50,000 per year for the first four or five years and then possibly increase to $150,000 per year to pay off principal.” He said, “This is a range of .05 percent to .20 percent of our Electric Division budget.”
Before Wheeler’s presentation, Berry offered a detailed overview of the industrial park’s potential impact if it is developed. He said if the park is eventually filled to capacity, it could result in as many as 1,856 direct jobs and about 1,700 indirect ones. Development costs by new industries locating there could result in some $195 million in investments, he said.
Berry’s report also projected the park — once filled — could mean a $115 million payroll with an average wage of about $32,377.
In his presentation to the board, Wheeler said he is concerned that a continued delay in developing a funding package for the industrial park could mean higher land prices in the long-term. Wheeler said he attended Monday’s session of the County Commission.
“I heard one Bradley County commissioner say there should be no hurry in developing the park right now because the property is not going anywhere and can be developed later,” Wheeler told the board in a written report. “I would disagree with this statement. Presently, the Industrial Development Board has an option to buy the property at the appraised value.”
The option expires in October, he said.
“I can assure you that once the new interchange is constructed on APD 40, the value of the property will go up,” Wheeler stressed. He was referring to a Tennessee Department of Transportation project that will revamp the existing Exit 20 interchange and create additional connectors to provide Interstate 75 access to the industrial park.
“Any delay in moving forward with the park will result in significantly greater cost at a later date,” he added.
Wheeler said most people agree that a new industrial park is needed if Bradley County is going to be attractive for future new industry.
“My argument is if this is what you believe, there will never be as good a time to act as right now,” he stressed. “Any delay will significantly reduce our chances for good jobs in the future and will only serve to increase our cost when we finally decide to act, as we surely will at some date in the future.”
Wheeler, who also serves as chairman of the Cleveland/Bradley Economic Development Council, said he has been directly involved in locating new industry in Bradley County since 1974.
“I am very concerned today that our inventory of publicly controlled industrial property is dangerously low,” he said. Wheeler pointed out a city the size of Cleveland should have a minimum of 400 to 500 acres of public industrial property available with full infrastructure.
“Today’s industrial projects are usually on a fast track and do not have two to three years to wait for a community to develop a space for their project,” Wheeler cautioned. “Likewise, a similar inventory of privately held property is very desirable.”
Wheeler repeated concerns that he first voiced last week about the Spring Branch Industrial Park site.
“I am concerned we are on the verge of letting an excellent opportunity to develop our next industrial park slip by us,” he said. “Our county will be at a terrible disadvantage over the next decade competing for good-paying jobs if we do not have large tracts of publicly owned property to show prospective employers.”
He added, “At a time when our unemployment rate is near 10 percent, it is definitely the time to invest in a new park, not put it on hold.”
Wheeler said the Spring Branch property cost is $6 million now, and over time it will require about $6 million more to fully develop.
“When completed, the cost of the developed park will be about $35,000 per acre,” he noted. “This is not a bad price with full infrastructure and great transportation access. I challenge anyone to show me a location in Bradley County that can be developed to the same standards for a lower cost.”
Wheeler repeated some of the points he has made previously that he said justify the property’s acquisition:
- The property is near CU’s South Cleveland substation which means it already has electric access.
- It is the only identified industrial park site that is fully within CU’s existing service area.
- Being located inside the municipal limits means it will add to the city and county tax base.
- Sewer and water access is already available.
- The park’s proximity to Enterprise South in Hamilton County means it could be attractive for suppliers to the new Volkswagen plant.
- TVA projections indicate the park could develop almost 2 million square feet under roof.
- In exchange for its $2 million contribution, CU would receive 25 acres of the property for the development of an Electric Division Operations Center 10 to 15 years down the road.
- The development cost of Spring Branch would be lower than any other possible industrial site in Bradley County.
- TDOT has already committed to improving the interchange at Exit 20 on I-75 and building a new interchange on APD 40 between Exit 20 and South Lee Highway. Once this construction is completed, the industrial park site will have “excellent interstate access.” Plus, it is located almost midway between the Wacker Polysilicon North America and Volkswagen plant sites, meaning that it can attract suppliers for both major manufacturing facilities.
Wheeler acknowledged the success of Bradley County’s growth over the past few years, but pointed out a community that stops growing will begin to stagnate, and then reverse course entirely.
“You’re either moving forward or you’re going back,” Wheeler said.
Even a stagnant stage won’t last long, he pointed out and warned, “... You quickly head into a death spiral.”