Tupelo — The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), America’s largest public utility company, has muscled up its economic development arm by taking a more active and aggressive role in recruiting and retaining projects by focusing on jobs, capital investment and load growth.
“Through our many programs to assist new and expanding industries, entrepreneurs and communities seeking help with recruitment and growth, we’ve recently wrapped up several successes, with high-profile projects such as SteelCorr, Aurora, Skyline Steel and Baldor,” said Chandler Russ, an economic development specialist in TVA’s Tupelo office. “I believe most utilities will try to emulate the TVA model in the years ahead.”
Stronger development on agenda
Building a stronger economic development machine was on the agenda of TVA chairman Glenn McCullough, whom President Bill Clinton appointed to an unexpired term on the three-member TVA board in 1999. In 2001, President George W. Bush, supported by U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), elevated the former mayor of Tupelo to lead the TVA.
In 2002, McCullough reconfigured the customer service division and made the economic development department its own specialty division. That August, he hired John Bradley, a 23-year veteran in the field, positioning economic development at an executive vice president level. The new division — TVA ED — took on a different focus and energy level to carry out a core mission for the utility giant, and several staff changes were made to enhance and increase the effectiveness of TVA’s economic development efforts.
“TVA ED (wants) to improve the quality of life for the citizens of the Tennessee Valley,” said Bradley, senior vice president of economic development.
In 2003, Bradley hired Tim Weston, who had spent seven years managing a port in Itawamba County. Earlier this year, he hired Russ, the former executive director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation. Through economic development circles, Weston and Russ had worked with each other for at least a dozen years.
“Both Chandler and Tim have experience at the local level and have had numerous successes in attracting new companies and jobs, as well as helping existing industries expand,” said Bradley. “Their industry experience, high energy levels and economic development knowledge is why we have them on our team.”
Russ said that he and Weston “were able to get in there and see where TVA could provide assistance and maybe squeeze a deal and make it work for TVA versus the competition. Having a local developer and a TVA developer looking at a deal with both sets of eyes is something that’s proven to be a valuable tool for TVA and local communities.”
Wealth of experience, service
TVA ED now employs 55, including target marketing specialists who generate leads in various, dedicated categories for the utility’s state-assigned economic development specialists. Weston and Russ oversee the TVA ED Mississippi office. The team also includes two civil engineers, an architect, two Ph.D. economists, researchers and others that provide technical support services.
“If a quick rendering is needed for a project, to orient the building on a site, for instance, we can do that in-house as a service to the client and local community and power distributor versus the community having to spend money for that technical assistance,” said Weston.
TVA has in place TVAsites.com, the world’s largest GIS-based site selection database comprised of more than 1,600 properties featuring instantaneous information.
“We also put our money where our mouth is to help close deals, loaning up to $2 million per project,” said Weston. “We’ve streamlined the process for financing alternatives by working closely with lending institutions to reduce the amount of paperwork and to reduce process time to 30 to 45 days, which is an efficient corporate time frame. We’re also on the road to a financing program that’s second to none, not only in Mississippi, but anywhere in the country.”
On target with investment
In Mississippi, TVA is on target for $1.1 billion in capital investment and more than 3,000 new jobs this year.
“TVA economic development would not have one success without the help and support of our 28 power distributors throughout Northeast Mississippi,” said Russ. “Our success ultimately rests with them.”
TVA’s Consumer Connection program focuses on the growth of the service sector and increasing sales tax collections for municipalities.
“Traditionally, our focus and that of the economic development community has been only on industrial clients,” said Weston. “This program provides both resources and opportunities for those economic development organizations that want to recruit retail-related companies to their area.”
Russ and Weston also help local economic developers in the Mississippi TVA service area improve their responses to RFPs (request for proposals).
“The high mark is no longer successfully completing an RFP,” said Russ. “The mark is successfully completing it so that you differentiate above your competition and ultimately are creative enough to win the project.”
TVA ED is working with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) on an economic development software program, the Synchronist Business Information System.
Perhaps TVA ED’s boldest move occurred last year, after TVA leaders learned that several major manufacturers were considering locating five additional automotive assembly plants in the southeast. They decided to increase their chances of housing those sites in their service area by creating a megasite certification program, the first detailed one of its kind in the nation, and contracted with Greenville, S.C.-based McCallum Sweeney Consulting, the firm that recommended the Nissan site in Madison County. The criteria included, among other things, at least 700 to 1,000 acres of contiguous, developable property; transportation access including rail service and highway connectivity to an interstate; labor capacity; and the status of environmental impact studies.
Two of the four certified megasites are in Mississippi, including a site near Tupelo and another in Columbus, on which SteelCorr is set to build a $700-million plant. The other two certified sites in TVA’s service area are in Chattanooga and Hopkinsville, Ky.
“The demand for certified industrial sites is one of the fastest-growing trends in the site location business because companies want sites that are ready to go and relatively risk free,” said Ed McCallum, senior principal of McCallum Sweeney Consulting. “Companies, especially in the automotive industry, are under tremendous market pressures to make siting decisions and startup facilities fairly quickly. With the megasites certification program, TVA has made it possible for sites with the necessary attributes in place and the due diligence completed to receive advanced certification.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.