City planners, development consultants and other experts provided a crash course in possible changes in store for the region during the West Tennessee Mega-Site/Blue Oval City forum at the Halloran Centre in Downtown Memphis on Thursday.
Presented by the Memphis Area Association of Governments (MAAG), the live-virtual event probed “next steps” regarding Ford Motor Co.’s plans to build America’s largest electric truck and battery plant near Stanton, Tennessee in Haywood County.
“This will really impact the entire region, so the smaller communities really need to avail themselves to some structure to manage growth,” said MAAG Director Ralph Moore, who emceed the event.
Ford’s incoming auto production plant – named Blue Oval City – is projected to bring 5,800 jobs to Haywood County. In addition to producing electric F-150 Lightning pickup trucks, it will also manufacture electric vehicle batteries and a battery recycling center. The automaker is investing $5.8 billion in the site.
“Projects like this are big and scary to some people because they don’t know how it’s gonna impact on them in various ways,” said Nashville-based development consultant Randall Gross. “I think the things to remember is that there is going to be a lot of planning going into this and there is an important way to look at how you can benefit from this project.”
Blue Oval City is expected to resonate throughout the region’s economy with an influx in infrastructure projects, real estate developments and supporting businesses. Haywood County alone is expected to see a 127 percent increase in its economy.
Yet, some communities that have seen auto production plants come online have experienced downsides to a booming local economy. In those instances, jobs and higher incomes were accompanied by increased traffic, urban sprawl, cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and, ultimately, a loss of local character.
“If you want to maintain the character of some of these smaller communities, we need to coordinate among those communities to talk about where we want housing to go, where we want different kinds of retail to go,” said Gross.
Analysis will likely extend beyond preserving historic buildings and community charm. Along with zoning considerations, natural resources will draw consideration. These could include aquifers, woodlands or wetlands, for example.
Auto manufacturers have relocated operations from rust belt states to southern ones in recent decades.
Smyrna, Tennessee, a suburb outside of Nashville, has been home to a Nissan plant since the 1980s. The discussion on Thursday included a reference to it as having been ill-planned and, consequently, typifying many of the negative concerns that can come with such a development.
A decade ago, Volkswagen opened an assembly plant in Chattanooga. With 3,800 direct jobs – often highly technical – and thousands of others (with more expected to come), it also has buoyed the area’s educational system.
“You have to understand … the robots are really building these vehicles,” said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly. “The labor at the plant is really running the robots, for the most part. This is not manual labor, for the most part. So, we had to convene the community. We were fortunate, we had a county mayor and school superintendent that got it. It really led to deep reform in the school system.”
As a result of the needed workforce, the reform of the school system extended beyond the K-12 system to vocational and tech schools to fill those slots with local workers.
“We now have some of the biggest and best learning labs and mechatronics labs in the state, if not the country,” said Kelly. “I think that’s directly because of the relationship with Volkswagen and the need to produce workers that can hold those jobs.”
Experience supports the likelihood that land prices in Haywood County and beyond will increase, with owners looking to cash in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some observers have expressed concern about such a scenario in a period of overpriced housing and with new housing stock at an all-time low.
“Speculation is a word that is often associated with these projects,” said Phil Walker, Urban Planning Consultant for the Walker Collective. “There will be tremendous amounts of land speculation associated with this site. That’s kind of just what happens.”
Transportation will also be an issue.
Many employees may choose to live out of town, resulting in congestion at certain times of the day as shifts change. Finding a ride will be another matter, too. Some employees likely won’t own a vehicle, reinforcing the need for expanded public transportation throughout the area.
“I probably shouldn’t leave the stage before I talk about this Amtrak idea,” said Kelly. “(Memphis) Mayor (Jim) Strickland and I talk about that. It’s kind of a pipe dream, right, but I’d love to see train service from Memphis to Nashville through the site and then down to Chattanooga.”