Innovative Steps Toward Economic Development

McMinn County EDA
Written by Mark Golombek

McMinn County is conveniently located along Interstate 75, between two of Tennessee’s most storied cities: Chattanooga and Knoxville. The McMinn County Economic Development Authority works hard to promote the myriad benefits of living and working in an area that shows a lot of room for growth.
A pleasant climate, great educational system and an active arts community are just a few of the area’s benefits. We spoke with Executive Director Kathy Price to find out more.

The Economic Development Authority was created to focus on industrial recruitment for McMinn County, Tennessee. Two years ago, when Kathy joined the fold, the slogan was re-branded to ‘Make It In McMinn’. “We just tried to find a brand to fit the multi-purpose place that we have come into,” she explains.

The McMinn County Economic Development Authority has a few areas in which it operates, and it all starts with new business recruitment. Through business expansion and retention programs, the Economic Development Authority provides lifelong services to its industries to help them grow and prosper. If these companies face challenging times, the Economic Development Authority helps to try to avoid plant closures.

“We also do industrial park development and management,” shares Kathy. “We own over 600 acres of industrial property that is ready for development, meaning that the infrastructure is there along with access.” In fact, the County is pleased to be able to offer one-gigabit per second of fiber internet service to its industrial parks. Says Kathy, “We also have certified industrial sites that are ready for development.”

Workforce development is crucial for any region to survive economically. A quality and available workforce is one of the main drivers that industries look for when deciding to locate to or remain in an area. The Economic Development Authority helps to coordinate all the workforce providers in the area. “We bring them together so that everyone is working for the same common cause, and that is to develop our workforce for the jobs that we have.”

People are brought in through the educational system in the region. Within the workforce, half of the workers are not just from the county but from the broader region. “Our region covers about a 45-mile area and 13 counties, so it’s very important that we work together as a region to develop those skills that are needed for those jobs. Our region, outside of the MSAs, is a blue collar manufacturing region. We are halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga and less than an hour outside either one, so I claim both regions,” Kathy says with a laugh.

McMinn is fortunate in that it is able to tap into the resources of both regions. Oak Ridge National Labs is an example of this as it is so close that McMinn is able to use those resources in the community and look at how it can work together to get technology licensed and commercialized with the intent to foster new business startups.

Another focus is on marketing the county’s assets: sites that are available, quality of life, resources, education resources and utilities. However, it all comes back to the industrial sector. It also works with the chambers of commerce to focus on retention of commercial businesses.

Encouraging entrepreneurship is yet another part of the Economic Development Authority. “We are going to be building an incubator in conjunction with a Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Business Innovation. It will offer an advanced manufacturing training facility as well as an area to incubate new companies willing to start up.” It is currently in the engineering design phase.

Nearly 28 percent of McMinn County’s employment is in the manufacturing sector – more than anywhere else in the state of Tennessee – and 62 percent of those jobs are in automotive supply. Kathy explains that the area has looked at ways to tailor its secondary education to be able to fill those jobs and to build a pipeline for the manufacturing jobs.

Companies are always looking to staff businesses and it is very important to the Economic Development Authority that it can provide that labor; otherwise, it will not be competitive. The Economic Development Authority is working on a labor market study to show prospective companies that there are enough trained workers in the workforce region.

“Sometimes rural communities get a raw deal on education because people think that a rural education system is not as good as some of the metros or larger cities. Our graduation rate in McMinn County is 95.7 percent; Tennessee’s average is at 87.2 percent.”

Kathy is very proud of the ACT composite score (a standardized test measuring high school achievement) of 18.5 which the county attained. The score puts it in the same league as Chattanooga, Bradley County and all the larger cities around. The per-pupil expenditure in our city schools is more than in any other county at $10,000 per student; Tennessee’s average is around $9,300. This shows that rural communities can be just as committed to education as the larger communities. McMinn County has a first-rate secondary education system as well as post-secondary which goes a long way toward recruitment efforts.

In addition to the McMinn County Schools career technical education areas, there is also the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Students go through it for machining, welding, electro-mechanical mechatronics programs, etc. Cleveland State Community College has an additional two-year degree programs as well as industrial training. Tennessee Wesleyan College graduates many human resource managers and accounting majors and is starting a new industrial management program.

A couple of years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) started the Valley Sustainable Communities Program, and McMinn was recognized as a Valley Sustainable Gold Community (VSCP). A VSCP “is one that has taken a leadership role in implementing sustainable practices and has made a commitment to sustainability efforts focused on economic development,” according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“What we are finding is a lot of companies are wanting to be in sustainable communities. You can look at Volkswagen in Chattanooga. Volkswagen wants this as it is a big part of their culture.” McMinn County already had many sustainable practices in place, so it put together a list and applied for the designation. Last year it attained a silver rating, but this year was upgraded to gold.

Another asset is its compressed natural gas commercial station. There are only a few in the state, so if people are running commercial vehicles, especially utility vehicles, on compressed natural gas, there are several options for them. The parks and recreation department has miles and miles of working trails and recently has started a new ‘rails to trails’ program. The public works department in the city of Athens has been very proactive with regard to building sustainable resources. The Economic Development Authority is working with Denso Manufacturing to build an eco-park in the industrial park adjacent to them. It will be used as a sustainable educational center.

“The Eco Park will have trails and a wetlands area so we can bring students and the community out to educate them on sustainable practices. It will also have other sustainable features. TVA Valley Sustainable Communities have a level similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program of platinum, gold and silver. We are one of the few communities that have attained gold status.”

McMinn has a little over 52,000 people within a pretty large geographical area. However, it boasts a strong arts community with an arts council and a Black Box theatre that showcases quality theatrical productions and musical productions. There is also The Gem Theater in Etowah with a theatre group that performs regularly. The county has a rich culture with several museums, including the McMinn Living Heritage Museum and the railroad museum. The city of Etowah is built around the railroad and also hosts the railroad museum. The Hiwassee River Rail Adventure train excursions are offered out of the historic depot. Thousands of visitors to McMinn County enjoy the excursion annually. Adding to the attraction is the mild climate with four distinct seasons.

McMinn is the only debt-free county in Tennessee, with the lowest debt per capita in the state (and Tennessee has the lowest debt per capita in the country). It has the fourth lowest property tax rate in the state due to the strong industrial base. It has a stable tax base with no increases in several years. “The County has a strong capital fund and continues to do capital projects in our community.”

There are a number of transportation alternatives. Interstate 75 runs through the county, providing easy access to any part of the country within a day’s drive. The central location and the proximity to two major metro areas is a considerable factor in the area’s desirability. It has a rural community feel with all the amenities of the larger centers.

The area has strong agricultural roots with large working farms. Mayfield Dairy began here and still exists to this day under the ownership of Dean Foods. “The way I look at it is, coming from an agrarian background, it brings a strong work ethic.”

As for the future, its biggest goal right now is to diversify the industrial base. Currently heavily automotive, it wants to recruit other industries to balance that out and to be prepared to cope with economic fluctuations. The target market right now is food processing which ties into its agrarian history. It is also looking at the aerospace industry because of the transferable skills that come from the automotive industries.

“We are seeing a lot of industrial activity now, especially growth of our existing industries.” Denso Manufacturing announced earlier in the year that it has plans to expand and create 400 new jobs in a $93 million expansion.

“Last year, we created 405 new industrial jobs and $200 million in capital investments which will be surpassed this year. We hit our lowest unemployment rate since the recession. So, things are positive and moving positively in the right direction now.” Obviously McMinn County has a lot of positive things to brag about!



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