The Boon Next Door

Can Cheatham County capitalize on the economic success of a neighbor? [From the May/June issue of Nashville Post magazine]

The success or failure of any significant investment often comes down to timing. Without a timely response, an opportunity can disintegrate as quickly as it appears.

In Cheatham County, the timing may finally be right to draw much-needed new industry to the area. With an ounce of preparation, Cheatham County could realize pounds of profit from the recent location of a $1.2 billion polycrystalline silicon manufacturing plant currently under construction by Hemlock Semiconductor in neighboring Montgomery County.

James Fenton, Cheatham County's executive director of economic and community development, describes the locating of that plant, which will make the materials used in solar panels and computer chips and plans to open by June 2012, bringing with it more than 900 jobs, as simply “phase one” in the economic development sequence.

“They’re expecting another $2 billion in development with corporations and companies to follow [the construction of the plant] and land in the area,” Fenton says. He wants Cheatham County to be ready for the ripple. “Unless we prepare ourselves properly and take advantage of it by establishing a site some of those companies can land in, we won’t see that much impact.”

With the Hemlock plant located just a few miles north of the Cheatham County line, experts in site selection say the county occupies a prime location for incoming business. Mark M. Sweeney is senior principal consultant of McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a Greenville, S.C.-based economic development consulting firm that has been involved in numerous big ticket Middle Tennessee corporate relocations, including Nissan. He says the county’s location (wedged between Clarksville and Nashville, with access from Interstates 24 and 40) may be its most valuable weapon in attracting such development.

“Cheatham provides a good geographic alternative for companies that have a relationship with Hemlock because they would still be close, but far enough to be independent,” Sweeney says. “They don’t want to have to compete with Hemlock for the same type of employees.”

The county has an existing business park, located in the county seat of Ashland City, but that park is full. As a result, the possibility of building “Cheatham Park North,” a second commerce park in the county’s northeastern corner, within miles of the Hemlock site, is the hot topic of discussion both in public discourse and county planning.

According to Sweeney, a future business park could sit squarely in the “path of progress,” but there are hurdles to clear. In May, the federal government declared Cheatham County a disaster area following the worst flooding to hit Middle Tennessee in decades. The flood left behind millions of dollars in damages and an unexpected deficit that may cut into any near-future investments.

“We were the fourth-hardest hit county in the state from a financial perspective,” says Chris Neese, executive director of the Cheatham County Chamber of Commerce. “At the same time, we’re in a situation where we have to rebuild.” Neese adds that the county “has not yet determined the best route for funding” for a new business park.

With any growth proposal inevitably comes public concerns about overdevelopment and tax increases. In that respect, what’s traditionally been a “black hole” for Cheatham County in terms of industry and property tax revenue may act as a safeguard for residents. A whopping one-sixth of the county belongs to the Cheatham County Wildlife Management Area — a 20,000-acre haven for outdoor tourism that is the state’s largest wildlife reserve.

Because of that, Fenton says, “Growth boundaries have been set, and a good chunk of the county is designated to stay rural.” This certainty should comfort residents worried about sprawl.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Many Hemlock suppliers will decide where to move within the area as early as next year. “If we don’t establish a footprint between now and then, we’re going to lose that opportunity, at least on the primary push,” Neese says.

What’s the solution? The trick lies in offsetting new industry and jobs with the quality of life to which more than 40,000 residents of the county have grown accustomed. “We’re trying to balance this commercial, industrial growth with the pristine rural nature of much of the county,” Fenton says.

As a first step, the county must, with the support of residents, identify and invest in a site to attract and accommodate business. In that battle, Sweeney says, “The logical conclusion is—let’s not wait around.”

Indeed, it’s not every day that a billion-dollar manufacturer arrives next door. How quickly Cheatham County shows up at the door, welcome basket — or in this case, industrial park — in hand, may determine just how good a neighbor Hemlock will be.