Tellico West Park a barometer for region’s economy

(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.)

In many respects, employment levels in the Tellico West Industrial Park are a bellwether for the region’s economy – up when times are good or recovering and down when the economy is challenged.

The reason is simple – the park, which is managed by the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency (TRDA), is home to three boating companies and three automotive suppliers in addition to two major distribution facilities and numerous small suppliers. Trading cars and buying boats are generally discretionary transactions that are deferred in tough economic times.

“The boating industry is coming back to near where they were before the long recession,” according to Ron Hammontree, long-time TRDA Executive Director, who added that about 3,000 people are currently employed by all companies that are located in the park.

A drive through the oldest industrial park in the TRDA portfolio reveals signs for well-known brands such as Sea Ray, MasterCraft, and Yamaha – all in the boating sector – as well as major automotive suppliers like JTEKT and Carlex Glass. Two distribution companies – Ryder, tied to ConAgra, and Excel, tied to Pfizer, occupy about 1,000,000 square feet of space.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Hammontree discussed the evolution of the park that started when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) proposed development of the Tellico Dam and resulting lake.

“This was a new phase for TVA,” Hammontree said. Instead of building dams to generate electricity and flood control, the Tellico project was also focused on enhancing “economic and community development for the region.”

The Tellico project encompassed 33.000 acres with the land mass allocated in thirds – 11,000 acres for the lake, a similar amount for the economic and community development activities, and the balance to be retained by TVA as green space and for a wildlife refuge.

“TVA thought that a model city named Timberlake would emerge,” Hammontree said. The agency recognized later that development was not going to occur in the three-county region (Blount, Loudon, and Monroe Counties) as initially envisaged. This realization caused the TVA and the three counties to ask the Tennessee General Assembly to create TRDA in 1982 as a multi-jurisdictional entity to implement a Comprehensive Development Plan for the area

With TRDA’s birth, the agency launched a multi-faceted effort to develop its 11,000 acres with residential, retail, public/commercial recreation and industrial activities.

“The first piece (of property) was sold to Cooper Communities,” Hammontree said. This transaction propelled residential developments such as Tellico Village.

“The first commercial (land) transaction involved Sea Ray,” he said, explaining that the attraction for the boating company was access to water for testing of its boats. Tennessee Watercraft, best known for its Yamaha brand, and MasterCraft followed.

Today, TRDA promotes the fact that eight boating brands and more than 20 parts manufacturers are located in the region. The suppliers make everything from trailers to seats, propellers and canvas covers.

“We had a real asset in this lake,” Hammontree said, adding that having the park adjacent to the lake enabled the growth of the robust boating industry cluster.

He adds that all transactions have not been as successful as intended initially and cites the economy as a major reason.

“Cobalt came and left,” Hammontree said. “The building is for sale, and we might be close to a new owner.”

The same is true for Christensen Shipyards, Ltd., which constructed a building in the neighboring Tellico Regional Business Park but left it unfinished. Hammontree remains optimistic that the Vancouver, WA yacht manufacturer will eventually complete the plant.

Hammontree, a former Deputy Commissioner of Labor and Employment Security for the State of Tennessee, is also frustrated with the inability to bring a robust mix of credit and non-credit educational opportunities to a training center located adjacent to TRDA’s headquarters. The 25,000 square foot facility was designed to help meet the educational needs of the community and the companies in the TRDA parks.

Yet, the fact that TRDA serves three counties and each is part of a different community college service region presents challenges that Hammontree has not yet successfully overcome. In characteristic fashion, he’s not giving up.

TRDA’s Tellico West Industrial Park is about two-thirds full, and Hammontree is pleased with the existing mix. “We have tried to maintain somewhat of a balance,” he says. In addition to the manufacturing and distribution companies, the Tellico West site is also home to several retail operations as well as a child care center and the Grand Vista Hotel and Suites.

The largest remaining site in the Tellico West park is about 190 acres. The newer Tellico Regional Business Park has about 200 available acres.

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