Independent Herald: On jobs, Alexander's message one of optimism

Posted on June 9, 2011

HUNTSVILLE — As some 50 government and community leaders looked on here Thursday, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander told his audience that Scott County has most of the tools at hand to attract quality industrial jobs and pledged his support to the county’s government and business community.

Former U.S. Senator and Huntsville native Howard H. Baker, Jr. was on hand for his protege’s short address, as was Sen. Bob Corker representative David Leaverton and state Rep. Kelly Keisling.

“Scott County has the highest unemployment rate in the state but they also have a lot to offer and I’m here to work with the local government on bringing auto suppliers to Scott County,” Alexander said outside the Office Building afterwards.

That stated purpose outside matched Alexander’s message inside the Office Building, as he told his audience — which included Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals and a number of other elected officials and department heads — that Scott County is well-situated to capitalize on the rise of small auto supply companies as the Southeast transforms into the nation’s new automaker capital.

Ironically, Alexander’s comments came just five days before Takahata — an auto parts supplier based in Helenwood — broke ground on a 44,000 sq. ft. expansion to its facility that is expected to generate several new jobs.

“A lot of the basics for creating a good job weren’t here 30 or 40 years ago,” Alexander said, adding that his first visit to Scott County was in 1966 as part of Sen. Baker’s “bandwagon.”

“You go into most areas and ask what you have to do to create jobs and they say you have to have the basics . . . well, you’ve worked on that,” Alexander said. “I think you have the basics. You just have to have someone to, as Sen. Baker would say, ‘tell the story.’”

Alexander played a pivotal role in luring auto giant Nissan to Tennessee during his tenure as governor in the early 1980s. Since then, the state has seen a growth of auto manufacturers that also includes Volkswagon. That growth will allow communities throughout the region to capitalize, he said.

“Auto plants aren’t the important thing to Scott County,” Alexander said. “It’s the suppliers for the plants that are important. We’re not talking about a plant with 500 people. That would be nice. But 50 people would be just fine.”

Alexander said Tennessee’s “right to work” status is important because bordering Kentucky is not a right to work state. The state’s location in close proximity to the nation’s population center is also an asset.

“You’re in the center of population, you’re in a right-to-work state, you have one of the best four-lane road systems in the country and you have the infrastructure here in Scott County,” Alexander said.

Additional assets, according to Alexander, are the county’s surplus of available natural gas and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

“I grew up in Blount County and having the Great Smoky Mountains National Park occupy a large part of our county hadn’t hurt a bit,” he said. “We just have to give them more reasons to spend their money here.”

In his short tenure as governor, Bill Haslam has made jobs creation a top priority, saying that Tennessee can be the Southeast’s top destination for jobs. Alexander said Scott County — with an unemployment rate more than seven points higher than the next highest county — can be key to the governor’s plan.

“I think Gov. Haslam is on the right track and I respect what he’s trying to do,” Alexander said. “But there’s no reason he can’t make Scott County a model community and try out some of his ideas here.”

Rep. Keisling, a freshman lawmaker from Pickett County, said that state government is on the right track with reforms that will assist industrial growth in Tennessee — including tort reform and said there is light at the end of the tunnel for Scott County.

“I don’t want to focus on what we don’t have but what we do have,” Keisling said. “I think the glass is half full.”

Mayor Tibbals reiterated his call for state and federal government to provide incentives for companies that are willing to locate in rural communities away from the interstate and said Scott County’s current focus is on helping companies currently located here to grow.

Tibbals said he and his staff are working with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Dept. of Economic & Community Development.

“The numbers show that 86% of job creation in Tennessee is from existing industry,” Tibbals said. He added that Tennier Industries is in the process of calling more than 200 workers back, while Great Dane and JDS Technologies have also expanded, in addition to Takahata’s expansion.

“I know the April numbers didn’t show it but I believe the unemployment numbers will be coming down in May and June,” Tibbals said.

After the meeting, Alexander said reduced regulations are key for growing jobs.

“Regulations are getting in the way of creating new jobs,” he said. “Every time we add costs to a job in Tennessee, we add to the risk of that job going to Mexico.”