By Scott Robertson
If there is a silver lining to the cloud CSX Railways’ departure left over Unicoi County, it is that the county’s application to the Select Tennessee Property Evaluation Program (PEP) has been accepted, creating opportunities the county otherwise would not have had.
PEP is a relatively new program developed by the Department of Economic and Community Development in Nashville. Its stated goal is to expand the state’s inventory of industrial sites and existing buildings. But in Unicoi County July 19, there was much more interest in the secondary aspect of the program: evaluating and reporting on not just the properties, but also potential economic development strategies for the community.
Don Schjeldahl, principal of DSG Advisors spent the previous two days touring the county, which has branded its main residential and commercial area, “The Valley Beautiful.” Following that tour, he spoke about his observations to a joint lunch meeting of the local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs in downtown Erwin.
If local leaders were hoping to have someone tell them jobs and investment would come quickly and easily, they were disappointed. Schjeldahl’s remarks were frank and, at times, may have been difficult for local leaders to accept.
On the plus side of the ledger, Schjeldahl said, the county has what he called, “significant untapped resources awaiting organization and promotion.” However, he cautioned, when asking whether the county is on a sustainable economic path, there are issues that have to be addressed. “The existing local industries are vulnerable to closing or downsizing. There is a shortage of land and resources needed to support job-creating investments. And finally, to date, the economic development strategy has been poorly defined, with minimal outreach.”
On the opportunity to lure CSX back into the market or replace CSX with a similar operation, Schjeldahl told the crowd that CSX cut its Erwin operations because the coal industry is down, and on the way out. “Coal’s not coming back,” he said. “It’s just not.” Schjeldahl also shut down talk of CSX being willing to donate its idled property to the local government for economic development. “I’ve worked with (CSX) in the past, Schjeldahl said. “I have a hard time envisioning a situation in which they would consider that.”
Still, Schjeldahl said, with a more focused economic development strategy and planning, Unicoi County can leverage its strengths effectively. “This has proven itself to be a good manufacturing town. You’ve had a history of companies staying here for decades and being prosperous. Now the world has changed under them, so a lot of them have left. But in the world today, companies are much more aware of those impending changes, so moving into a town like this that has a tradition of being hard working and productive – married with better planning around workforce and infrastructure – manufacturing companies would come to a town like this to plan a long term investment. I could easily see metal-working operations, for instance, in the realm of possibility.”
Schjeldahl said there are a couple of key questions the county needs to answer in narrowing its economic development efforts to achieve concrete results. “What types of investment are you trying to attract,” he asked, “and what are you doing to focus on job retention?”
“All in all,” Schjeldahl concluded, “I have a good feeling about this community because workforce is the number one complaint of employers in America today, and with the heritage of hard work in this community – in talking with employers here, they’re pretty happy with the workforce.”