By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
There’s no doubt that Tennessee is in a very strong position from an economic development perspective, and the state’s top official overseeing those efforts is committed to keeping the momentum going.
“I tell our team that we want to wake-up every day and see what we can do to create more high-quality jobs,” Bob Rolfe, Commissioner of Economic and Community Development (ECD), told about 700 people attending the annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development” yesterday in Gatlinburg. The conference concludes today after a luncheon featuring the state’s two U.S. Senators.
In his comments that opened the conference, the humble new Commissioner – he’s nearing completing eight months in the role – credited his predecessors – Bill Hagerty and Randy Boyd along with the staff of ECD – for the great results.
He cited six key indicators, with Tennessee ranking first in four and in the top three in the others. The state is number one in terms of the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast, small business growth, and household income, has its highest ever real GDP growth and also ranks tops among Southeastern states, ranks second among all 50 states in infrastructure, and is third nationally in business climate.
All indicators are positive thus far in 2017. Year-to-date data reflect 123 new projects announced that should result in 16,220 new jobs created and $3.7 billion in new capital investments made. Rolfe was particularly proud of two additional statistics – 35 percent of this year’s projects come are from foreign direct investment (FDI) and 80 percent of the projects reflect expansions of existing facilities.
Tennessee has always been a leader in pursuing FDI opportunities, and the Haslam Administration has made it an even higher priority.
“We now cover 11 countries across the globe,” Rolfe said, explaining the state has offices in nine countries. They are China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Since 2011, FDI investments in Tennessee have amounted to $11.8 billion from 300 projects involving 26 countries. More important, those projects amounted to 48,700 job commitments.
“In June, we visited six project prospects in six days, and I’m happy to say four of the six have been successful,” Rolfe said. “I’m still optimistic about the other two.”
Looking ahead, the Commissioner spent a few minutes discussing implications from the recent initiative from Amazon to build a second headquarters. The global giant reported on Monday that it had received 238 proposals for the project that could amount to an investment of $5 billion and the creation of 50,000 jobs over a number of years.
Rolfe started by comparing the project size to Nashville.
“Amazon is looking for a city that would be about the size of Nashville,” he said in citing the city’s existing square footage of business space and private sector employment. “The likelihood that Tennessee will be picked is not real high.”
That said, Rolfe emphasized the importance of the process that several Tennessee cities completed where they closely examined their true strengths and weaknesses. “It’s a great, great exercise that all cities should undertake to prepare for future projects,” Rolfe said.
Three other state priorities – rural communities, education and workforce development, and the West Tennessee megasite – were on the Commissioner’s mind. Regarding the latter, Rolfe said, “We’re dug in” to make it successful. At the same time, he acknowledged a key challenge. “We are about $75 million short of getting the site (fully) ready, and that (figure) does not include incentives.”
On the rural front, the Commissioner described a pilot effort that is part of Project 95 to bring as many as 200 call center jobs to Hancock County, one of the state’s most depressed areas. “It’s an experiment we are going to try to see if it is successful,” he said. If so, it will be repeated in other communities.
In a session later yesterday, Amy New, ECD’s Assistant Commissioner for Rural Development, said the overall state investment in rural initiatives thus far is 689 grants totaling $187 million that have been awarded in 93 of the 95 counties.