Roane County a “hot property”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The article that follows is the latest in a series of profiles on the parks in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley and their unique roles in accelerating the growth of technology-based enterprises in the region.)

Roane County might be home to more industrial park acreage than any of the other counties in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley. Without a doubt, it has been in the headlines frequently with prestigious names like Volkswagen and Crete Carrier locating in the county.

Three parks that were covered in the recent interview series with Lawrence Young of the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee (CROET) – Heritage and Horizon Centers and the Oak Ridge Science and Technology Park – are located in the county. There are also four other parks – Harriman Industrial, Plateau Partnership, Roane County Industrial, and Roane Regional Business and Technology Park.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Leslie Henderson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Roane Alliance, talked about her team’s strategies for attracting companies to the county and the importance of the recent Volkswagen announcement.

Henderson came to the Roane Alliance in early 2004 from the City of Knoxville, where she had been Development Director under former Mayor Victor Ashe. She recalls the time very vividly as the massive H.T. Hackney facility that is visible from Interstate 40 was beginning to come out of ground.

“Until Hackney opened in early 2005, there was only one development in the more than 650-acre park,” she said. It was Protean Instruments Corporation that started in 2002. Today, Roane Regional is down to roughly 275 acres, although there is additional land adjacent to it that is privately owned. And, 75 of those acres are earmarked for an office complex because they are “too topographically challenging for industry, but with a beautiful river view for a high-tech office complex.”

Henderson described the new Volkswagen distribution center as a “magnet for the region” and further evidence that Roane County is becoming a preferred site for companies focused on logistics and distribution.

“The Hackney deal was struck before I arrived,” Henderson said, adding that the Alliance “stepped-up when it appeared the (Crete) project could be lost,” even though it is located on property just outside Roane Regional.

The Volkswagen announcement came about three and one-half years after Henderson participated in a week-long series of meetings in Germany with Volkswagen suppliers that then Governor Phil Bredesen organized.

“Both Innovation Valley Inc. and the Roane Alliance set the VW supply chain as a target,” she said. Her organization identified four potential sites in the county that would be suitable for Volkswagen suppliers.

Several months after the October 2008 trip, opportunity knocked on the Alliance’s door with a series of requests for information on a distribution center. Henderson recalls that the Alliance submitted four times total. By September 2010, Roane Regional was a preferred location.

The good news that the county was on the short list was offset by the fact that Volkswagen required at least 55 acres, but Roane Regional only had 30 contiguous acres available.

Undeterred, Henderson conferred with old friend Sam Furrow who connected her with Jenny Banner, CEO of Schaad Companies, owner of a large tract needed to meet the Volkswagen requirements.

“Sam, Jenny and other property owners knew the importance of the project to Roane County,” Henderson said. “With the cooperation of three separate property owners, we got the 25 additional acres we needed in 10 days.”

Eighteen months after devoting “75 percent of my waking hours to the Volkswagen project,” Henderson achieved her ultimate goal with the company’s announcement on March 13 of its $40 million, 400,000-square foot warehouse/distribution center. Volkswagen can add another 200,000-square feet on the site. Initial employment is projected to be 47 people.

Henderson describes the VW and Crete announcements as “high profile efforts.” She adds, “We are a hot property.  Everyone’s hearing about Roane County.”

Reflecting on her eight years with the Alliance, Henderson recalls another strong year – 2007 – when her organization was able to land nine projects in 10 months. Those kept staff busy during the protracted economic downturn.

“Roane County’s biggest challenge is we don’t have deep pockets,” she says. “We have property but not enough sewers,” making development very challenging. Yet, in her characteristic upbeat style, Henderson notes that “onsite waste treatment could change the cost challenges we face.”

For now, she’s focused on capitalizing on the national attention that the Volkswagen announcement has brought. She did not say it this directly, but it is obvious that Henderson wants to “strike while the iron is hot.”

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