Lamar struck right chord with VW

Posted on July 18, 2008

The venison was thinly sliced. The bar was open and well-stocked. The conversation ranged from Gov. Phil Bredesen's affection for oil painting to strategy of how Volkswagen would build a new automobile plant. It was all quite polite. But it took Tennessee's piano-playing senator later in the evening to put the visitors in the mood. On Friday night, June 20, 13 powerful people — mostly male — gathered around U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's formal dining room table, in his elegant home in Chattanooga's Riverview neighborhood. The governor was there, of course, and his economic development commissioner, Matt Kisber. Both of Tennessee's U.S. senators were there, Lamar Alexander and Corker. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp was invited, along with two mayors and a half-dozen VW executives. They included Stefan Jacoby, president and CEO of Volkswagen. Jacoby had not attended the first dinner at Corker's home, held on June 10. That one was far less formal, with a cocktail hour and dinner for 60. That was a get-to-know-you event, after the VW people had been taken around the potential Chattanoogaplant site and flown over it by helicopter. The German contingent was shown a 10-minute video that started out with the 1969 news clip in which Walter Cronkite reported that Chattanooga was "the dirtiest city in America." The visitors saw before and after photos of what Chattanooga did to correct that, from building an aquarium, to riverfront greenways and a walking bridge. Terms like "vision" and "public-private partnerships" were batted about. That first dinner was easy-going, with small tables set up in Corker's living room. Talk focused on bipartisanship teamwork. All nice. But no real surprises. And certainly no commitments. But like a smooth college fraternity rushing the most desirable rushees, a smaller group of VW executives was invited to dine again, 10 days later, at Corker's house. The dinner party conversation included much bantering as small sets of people chatted in twos and threes. The wine flowed. There was no talk of financial incentives, but plenty about philosophy of how to do business. After polishing off an extremely rich bread pudding, they pushed back their chairs. The dinner party was winding down. The guests made their way into Corker's living room, some taking their glasses with them. People were shaking hands, and beginning to say their thank you's. That might have been it, if Corker hadn't made a suggestion. Sen. Alexander, he told his guests, is a mighty talented piano player. And so Lamar Alexander, with 12 people leaning close as if it were a piano bar, tickled the ivories. He played, of course, a marvelous rendition of that 1941 international smash hit "Chattanooga Choo Choo." The Germans knew the words, and joined in ("dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer"). And when the last note floated away, and the delighted laughter died down, the governor shook the guests' hands and told them, "This is your invitation to come. Be part of Chattanooga." Bredesen delivered the invitation. But Glenn Miller sealed the deal.