By Dave Ongie
U.S. Senator Bill Hagerty spent some time last week taking an economic development tour across the state of Tennessee, and what he found in our region impressed him.
Hagerty received an update from Eastman Chemical Company efforts to recycle plastic waste last Friday before taking a bus tour through the renovation and expansion project at Domtar that will allow the manufacturer to pivot from the production of office paper to the production of containerboard. Eastman is investing $250 million in a plastics recycling plant with a lofty end goal of ending plastic waste while Domtar is investing $300 million to convert its Kingsport mill into the second-largest cardboard recycling facility in North America capable of producing around 600,000 tons per year.
“What we’re seeing in this region is cutting edge in terms of recycling and getting ahead of where the market is going,” Hagerty said. “I’m very optimistic about what it means for East Tennessee and all the people who work here.”
Hagerty’s bus ride across the Domtar property was a rocky one, literally and figuratively. The bus rocked back and forth as it traveled over the ruble of buildings that have been demolished to make way for new storage and production facilities.
In order to make the transition from paper to containerboard, Domtar had to bite the bullet and shut down operations for nearly a year to overhaul the entire facility. Hagerty applauded the investment, which came after Domtar’s careful assessment of the market. The new facility is projected to come online in the first quarter of 2023.
“I’m very impressed with the agility of this company,” he said. “They’re moving with the market. Electronic commerce has really changed the way packaging requirements are being fulfilled here in the United States. Domtar has realized that, and they’ve taken a major investment to get ahead of the curve and really move in the direction the market is going.”
Hagerty said he is encouraged to see manufacturers like Eastman and Domtar making large investments in our region, and he also expressed optimism about the steps Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has made to develop a strong workforce across the state. Lee’s Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) is designed to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students across the state while the Drive to 55 initiative aims to drastically increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications by the year 2025.
“If you think about the competitive advantage our rural communities could bring to bear, this sort of training could make our workforce the best in the nation, and in fact, the best in world,” Hagerty said.