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UPDATE: Auto components manufacturer eyes new site in county

An international automobile components company is looking to locate its first manufacturing operations in the U.S. by creating 206 jobs in the Washington County Industrial Park.

The unnamed company, which industrial development officials are calling “Project Stamp,” would be located in the now vacant 380,000-square-foot Alo Tennessee Inc. building, 115 Precision Blvd., in the Telford park.

The 44-year-old manufacturer of metal stamped auto components, which now has 17,500 employees and 26 production plants in 10 countries, has asked for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal for its a two-phased project that calls for a total capital investment of $144,482,000.

Alicia Summers, vice president of business development for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said Thursday the company will create 117 jobs in the first phase of its development. The second phase, which concludes in 2027, will bring an additional 89 new jobs.

Summers said the company plans to spend $45.9 million of its projected capital investment this year to purchase equipment and the now privately owned former Bush Hog building in the industrial park. The company hopes to begin manufacturing operations at the site with 37 employees in 2022.

She said the company manufactures car doors and bumpers. Summers told members of the county’s Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee that another county in Tennessee and sites in Michigan and Ohio are also competing for the company.

The CIA committee voted to approve the PILOT deal, and recommended the county’s Budget Committee do the same when it hears the plan on Thursday.

“We are creating good jobs for people who want to work with their hands,” CIA Chairman Phil Carriger told his colleagues.

Summers and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy both stressed that the real property will remain on the county’s property tax rolls and the tax abatement plan includes new revenue earmarked for county schools, much like the deal the county reached in 2019 to lure German auto fan manufacturer Ebm-pabst to the Telford industrial park.

“Allowing direct funding for education is very significant,” Grandy said.

Under the terms of the PILOT, the company would be responsible for submitting reports of new jobs created and their annual wages on Jan. 31, 2022. The agreement requires the company to have created 90%, or 105, of its projected 117 new jobs in Phase I by Dec. 31, 2025.

Those jobs are expected to pay an average wage of at least $17 an hour. Failure to meet those terms would result in the company having to repay 50% of the PILOT benefits it has received.

Phase II will require the company to have created 90% of its promised 206 jobs, at a minimum hourly wage of $17, by Dec. 31, 2027. Failure to meet those terms will force the company to repay 50% of its benefits from the PILOT.

{p class=”p5”}As reported earlier:

An international auto manufacturing company is looking to locate its first operations in the United States in the Washington County Industrial Park.

The company, which industrial development officials are calling Project Stamp, would be located in the former Alo building in the Telford park. The company has asked for a payment in lieu of taxes deal for its a two-phased new capital investment of $144,482,000 that will create 206 jobs.

The company manufactures car doors and bumpers. Another county in Tennessee, as well as locations in Michigan and Ohio are also vying for the company.

Check back later for more on this developing story.

Washington County adds 70 new COVID-19 cases, most since Jan. 17

Washington County added 70 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, the highest one-day total reported in the county since Jan. 17.

The surge brought its seven-day new case total to 272 — 50 more than neighboring Sullivan County which has a slightly larger population.

Overall, the region reported 223 new COVID-19 infections, the highest one-day total since Jan. 29 — and just the second time Northeast Tennessee has added 200-plus cases since Jan. 31. Thursday’s new case count brought the region’s seven-day average to 126.1, the highest rate since Feb. 16.

Since hitting a low point of 65.2 on March 8, the region’s seven-day new case rate has nearly doubled.

Behind Washington County, Sullivan County reported 50 new cases, while Carter (28), Greene (11), Hawkins (32) and Johnson (19) counties each reported double-digit new case counts.

Active cases, which were at 1,405 as of Thursday, have also seen a sharp increase since early March — increasing by 90.8% since hitting a low of 736 on March 10. Sullivan County (470) currently has the most active cases in the region, though Washington County has seen its active case count (432) grow at three times the rate of Sullivan County’s over the past two weeks.

Since March 26, Sullivan County’s active case count has increased by 10.3%, while Washington County has seen a 32.9% increase — the third-largest in the region over that time behind Greene County (57.3%) and Johnson County (67.8%). Greene County has 140 active cases, about 32% of Washington County’s total, while Johnson County’s total of 47 equals about 11%.

Northeast Tennessee’s seven-day positivity rate, which has been on the rise since early March, climbed to its highest rate since Jan. 21 on Thursday, crossing the 15% mark for the first time in 77 days. That rate has more than doubled since hitting a low point of 7.02% on March 8. Washington County had a daily positivity rate of 22.4% on Thursday, just behind Sullivan County’s rate of 24.12%.

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Nations around the world set new records Thursday for COVID-19 deaths and new coronavirus infections as the disease surged even in some countries that have kept the virus in check. The full story can be found on A9.

Northeast Tennessee's jobless claims still aren't entirely back to normal

This time last year, thousands of people in Northeast Tennessee were filing for unemployment every week.

Today, hundreds of people in Northeast Tennessee are filing for unemployment every week, and although that marks a dramatic decrease, residents are still seeking jobless benefits at a rate a few times higher than before the pandemic.

That’s happening statewide, too.

“Our spike in the highest number of initial claims was April 4 of 2020, when statewide we had over 116,000 people file for unemployment during that one week,” said Chris Cannon, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“Fast forward a year later, obviously the situation is much different and the numbers are much lower, but they’re still high and higher than they were.”

What do the numbers say?

For the week ending April 3, 770 people in the eight-county region of Northeast Tennessee filed for unemployment benefits, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Labor.

During the week ending April 4, 2020, that figure was 6,521, which is still the region’s highest number of jobless claims filed in a single week since the start of the pandemic.

For comparison, 132 people filed for unemployment during the week of March 14, 2020 — before the economic effects of the outbreak started showing up in those numbers.

With the exception of a brief bump in January, weekly unemployment claims have consistently stayed below 1,000 filings in Northeast Tennessee starting in August. At the same time, new weekly unemployment filings have not dipped below 300 since last March.

Of the approximately 60,000 unemployment filings made in Northeast Tennessee since the week ending March 21, 2020, the highest number (20,000) have come from Sullivan County, which is the most populous county in the region.

Washington County has clocked the second-most at 15,000, and Greene County stands at third with nearly 10,000 claims filed.

Statewide, 10,847 residents filed new claims last week, which is a significant drop from the high of 116,141 claims filed during the week of April 4, 2020. But, like Northeast Tennessee, the most recent statewide numbers are still at least a few times higher than they were during the week ending March 14, when 2,702 residents filed for unemployment.

At large, Tennesseans have filed more than one million unemployment claims since March 15.

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Why are the numbers still high?

Cannon said certain sectors of the economy have been particularly gutted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There are many businesses out there that are running at pre-pandemic levels or even better,” he said, “but there are still those sectors — the entertainment industry, the leisure and hospitality industry — those sectors are still very hard-hit.”

In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported employment in the leisure and hospitality sector dropped by 498,000 nationwide. Three quarters of that decrease came from job losses among food service and drinking establishments.

The outlook for those sectors has, however, improved since December. In March, the leisure and hospitality sector gained 280,000 jobs, which was on top of gains made in February. This, the bureau said, occurred as pandemic-related restrictions started to ease across the country.

Almost two-thirds of that March spike was at food service and drinking places, accounting for 176,000 jobs. The arts, entertainment and recreation sectors, meanwhile, saw an increase of 64,000 jobs.

Another possible reason for the persistent number of new unemployment claims? Federal rules require people who have been on unemployment to refile for benefits after a year has passed, which Cannon said could also help explain the uptick in new claims.

Currently, the benefit year is ending for people who filed for unemployment the week of April 4, 2020.

“It’s a combination of folks who are still unemployed or still losing their jobs because of the pandemic and the impact of the economic downturn,” Cannon explained, “and because folks are refiling because their benefit year has ended.”

Three new members appointed to county's Election Commission

The three Republican members of the Washington County Election Commission have been replaced.

The Tennessee Election Commission voted earlier this week to appoint Phyllis Fox, a former administrator at Milligan University; Gary McAllister, a former Washington County commissioner; and John Abe Teague, who served as 1st District director for former Congressman Phil Roe, as Republicans on the five-member board.

They will succeed Washington County Election Board Chairwoman Janet W. McKee, and Election Commissioners Patti Jarrett and Jon Ruetz.

Democratic members Margaret Davis, who currently serves as the panel’s secretary, and Charles B. Kinch Jr. will remain on the Washington County Election Commission.

Members of the state Election Commission are responsible for appointing election commissioners for all 95 counties in the state. This is done on the first Monday in April of every odd-numbered year.

McAllister, who stepped down from his seat on the County Commission late last year after moving out of his district, said Thursday he is looking forward to serving on the Election Commission.

“I think members of the board will work together to make sure elections are fair and everyone has a chance to vote,” he said. “We want to get it right and every vote is counted.”

Washington County’s delegation to the state General Assembly told the Press late last year they were in favor of taking a look at the Election Commission to determine why local election results were being posted much later than most other counties in Tennessee and what steps the office could take to remedy the situation.

Local lawmakers consult with the state Election Commission concerning appointments to the local Election Commission, a body that in turn chooses the county’s election administrator.