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Posted on: Thursday - Apr 7, 2016

2015 was an outstanding year for economic development in Tennessee. Actually, it was the best year in the state’s history. Our business development team set a new record by landing 161 company commitments which represented 25,837 new job commitments and $5.5 billion in capital investment. Unemployment in the state was declining, and educational attainment was at the highest level ever. We also made great strides in rural development by announcing a new $10 million rural economic development fund to support initiatives in rural Tennessee.

After coming off of such a great year, we were determined to carry that momentum into the new year and hit the ground running in 2016. We began the year with some terrific news regarding Tennessee’s unemployment rate. With private sector employment growing by 3.66 percent over the past 12 months, Tennessee ranks No. 1 in the Southeast and No. 2 in the nation. Tennessee’s unemployment rate declined to 4.9 percent in February, matching the nation’s unemployment rate for that same month. This is certainly news that we, as a state, should be proud of.

Speaking of jobs, in January, we set an ambitious goal of creating 28,000 new jobs. Based on our robust pipeline, I believe we are on track to have another record breaking year. To date, we have secured 4,747 job commitments from 50 companies representing an investment of $806 million. We’ve been fortunate to have newly located projects and expansions throughout the state, and I’d like to take a moment to highlight just a few.

In January, Ohio-based Toledo Molding & Die announced plans to invest $20 million to build a new manufacturing facility in Fayetteville-Lincoln County Industrial Park – Lot 4, a Select Tennessee Certified Site. The project represented 250 new jobs in Fayetteville. Just eight days later, Olympus, a medical equipment and device manufacturer, announced it will build its East Coast National Service Center in Bartlett, creating 280 new jobs in Shelby County. In Dyer County, German-based condiments manufacturer Develey announced plans to invest $20 million in its first North American facility in Dyersburg creating 150 new jobs. On the other side of the state, we saw our largest capital investment so far this year from JTEKT Automotive Tennessee. JTEKT, a hydraulic and power steering parts manufacturer, will invest $218.5 million to expand its Monroe County operations creating 50 new jobs in Vonore. And Sullivan County’s workforce gained 585 new job commitments from Agero when the company announced plans to locate a new call center in Blountville.

A few weeks ago, the rural development team concluded a statewide assessment of broadband access and usage. After receiving feedback from a number of elected officials, business executives and economic development professionals during my listening tours last year, I was told repeatedly that a lack of broadband access is hurting future economic development efforts in Tennessee. While you might think this would only be heard in our rural regions, this sentiment was echoed in all nine TNECD regions. So in an effort to remedy the problem, we determined that we first need to study broadband access, adoption and usage in Tennessee’s rural, suburban and urban communities. The survey ran for a little more than two months. Final numbers from the assessment are in and have far exceeded our expectations. We received 17,776 responses for households and 5,539 for business and organizations. Every county had at least five business or organization responses with 92 of 95 counties having at least 10 responses. For household responses, the average per county was 187, and each county had at least 10. We could not have achieved such success alone and are very thankful to all of our partners throughout the state for encouraging participation and to everyone who took the survey. The full report of our findings will be available in June and will not only include data and analysis of the statewide assessment but also information about options for the state to ensure that our communities have the connectivity they need to improve our quality of life, educational opportunities, healthcare and our businesses’ ability to compete.

Rural development is something our department has focused on heavily over the past year. So many counties in our state are getting left behind, and since you’re only as rich as your poorest neighbor, we are doing all that we can to help them. I’ve said before that Tennessee is on the cusp of a “Rural Renaissance” and because of our efforts to boost economic development throughout the state, I believe we are heading in the right direction. The Rural Economic Development Act is critical legislation that has passed the House of Representatives with 43 co-sponsors. We appreciate the hard work of our House sponsor, Rep. Curtis Halford, for getting it through the House. Our Senate sponsor, Majority Leader Mark Norris, shepherded the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee this week with a unanimous vote. The bill now heads to the Senate floor and if successful, it will head to the governor for his signature.

Starting in February, the communications and marketing team began a new project to give at-risk and distressed counties the tools they need to compete economically. The goal of the Distressed Counties Website Enhancement program is to make these counties more accessible to prospect companies and site selectors by delivering messages that are unique to the advantages each community has to offer. Over the course of two weeks, the team traveled across the state conducting discovery meetings and site visits in 12 counties: Bledsoe, Campbell, Cocke, Fentress, Johnson, Lake, Lauderdale, McNairy, Morgan, Scott, Wayne and White. The next steps will involve reviewing all of the information and creating a new economic development website with custom video and photography tailored to each county and a website training session to help them manage the new site. All 12 websites will be finalized by October.

To enhance the state's ability to attract investment by foreign companies, we have engaged representatives in three new foreign countries. In addition to a representative in Japan who has been with the department for over a decade, the new representatives in Germany, Italy and South Korea will work in their countries to build the state's profile as the premier location to do business in the Southeast. 

The Center for Economic Research in Tennessee (CERT) was created last year and has been doing valuable studies on economic policy, returns on investment and competitive positioning. CERT has already produced two reports this year focusing on the economic benefits of postsecondary education and the probability of workforce disruption in Tennessee due to automation and technological advances. Both studies show the importance of education and workforce alignment and how the Drive to 55 is imperative to our mission. 

In January, Tennessee received a $44.5 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to support disaster recovery and resiliency projects. The grant funds 10 projects in Dyer, Lake, Lauderdale and Madison counties including projects to restore waterways and floodplains, rehabilitate wastewater systems and create tourism, recreation and green spaces. The funds are in response to the flooding that occurred in West Tennessee in 2011, and the grant package was only one of 13 winning applications in HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. It is terrific to see federal tax dollars coming back to our communities to help build capacity to mitigate the effects of future disasters, and we are very fortunate to receive this funding. I’ve visited Dyer, Lake, Lauderdale and Madison counties to present each community with a check, which is also a great way for me to continue to see the entire state.

One of my favorite aspects of this job is having the opportunity to get out in the state and meet our partners, business leaders and the hardworking Tennesseans that give our state its reputation of being a great place to live and work. When I joined the department last year, I set a personal goal to visit each of the state’s 95 counties. Last month, I visited my 70th county, Lauderdale, and I plan to visit the remaining counties later this year.

As I reflect on our department’s accomplishments thus far, it’s always important to remember that we do not achieve any of our success alone. It takes a great team and everyone from those in state and federal government, our General Assembly, local leaders, business and education partners, and our citizens are a part of this team and its success. I’m thankful for Team Tennessee and can’t wait to see all of the great things we can do in 2016.