Washington County is 20 years behind when it comes to having available land and buildings to recruit businesses, according to some county officials.
This was the message county commissioners received in Monday’s information session with Robert Reynolds, the CEO of the Washington County Economic Development Council.
“We are way, way behind,” Reynolds told commissioners. “We need to be extremely aggressive to catch up.”
According to EDC figures, the county controls about 96 acres for development, all in the Washington County Industrial Park in Telford; and Washington County’s contribution to economic development is at the lowest end when compared to neighboring counties or those with similar populations.
Compared to 96 acres, Blount County has about 753 acres of available industrial acreage, while Wilson County has almost 3,000 that they are marketing, Reynolds said. According to figures from the state comptroller, Washington County contributed $139,244 to its economic development organization in 2010. Wilson County contributed $242,590; Williamson, $278,488; Sevier, $321,474; Sullivan, $477,490; Clarksville/Montgomery, $688,932; and Blount, $797,943.
“There’s a direct correlation between funding and success,” Reynolds said, adding that the other counties are using their funding to procure land and get sites ready for companies to come in and begin work. “People shop where the product is.”
County Mayor Dan Eldridge hopes commissioners heard Reynolds’ message loud and clear.
“The first aspect he identified, and I hope everybody heard, was that in regard to available land and available buildings, Washington County is 20 years behind. That’s very significant, and very accurate,” Eldridge said. “And we certainly do underfund economic development activities in Washington County. When you compare us to our neighbor Sullivan County, I think we’re at a fourth of that amount. Compared to the closest counties to us in population, we are woefully underfunding.”
When Eldridge took office in September 2010, the county controlled about 21 acres for economic development. With contributions from the Washington County Economic Development Board and the Johnson City Power Board, the county purchased an additional 67 acres adjacent to the Industrial Park earlier in 2011.
Even with the extra land, Eldridge said the county’s work in acquiring, or at least identifying, more land available for development has barely begun.
“We are actively pursuing the identification of other tracts and potential opportunities,” he said. “We’re not necessarily looking to purchase it, but to get it under control to where we can get streets and infrastructure to it, and have it available. We don’t have to own it. We just have to be able to control the development and make it available.”
That job is an everyday activity, and Eldridge said the EDC is working in that capacity. More funding from the county would be put to use doing just that — finding land and putting in infrastructure to make it more attractive to companies.
The county will have to change its mindset that economic development happens naturally, Eldridge said. Before the recession, companies came to Washington County, drawn in by the private sector, but that has changed.
“In the past, Washington County has been very fortunate to have investment and job growth. We really grew without having to focus on a lot of government intervention. The private sector was making it happen,” he said. “The circumstances today are very different. Today, we have to encourage and incent the private sector. It’s extremely competitive.”
He said Washington County isn’t like other counties that have been preparing all along the way for a time like this. The work that was put in creating and populating the Washington County Industrial Park needed to be happening in a couple of other locations as well, Eldridge said.
“What we did, we did very well,” he said. “We just needed to be doing more of it.”
When land is available, Reynolds said, the market prices in Washington County are just too high. He said the asking price of undeveloped land in the county rivals prices for land with access roads, infrastructure, and buildings in other counties.
Having Washington County work with private land owners will help tame market prices on available land, Eldridge said, and ensure that offerings are competitive with other counties and throughout the Southeast. Also, the county and the EDC have been meeting with the Tennessee Department of Transportation about developing access roads for industrial parks, and with the state Economic and Community Development department about Fast Track grants, which get a development site “pad-ready” — doing grading, roads, and putting in infrastructure.
“We need to come to terms with the fact that Washington County has the primary responsibility for economic development. We cannot rely on the state or federal government,” Eldridge said. “Certainly, the state ECD is a resource, and the TVA is a resource; but our success will be the result of initiatives we put in place to create new jobs, whether from existing businesses or companies we recruit.”