MURRAY — When a community is trying to shake the cobwebs of a major employer announcing it will not be there much longer, one looks for any good news when it is available.
And while Murray Calloway Economic Development Corporation President Mark Manning admits that it is not an earth-shattering development, he does see the Tennessee Valley Authority’s recent designation of Calloway County as a Special Opportunities County as a positive step. The program is designed to assist communities in TVA’s coverage zone that are undergoing economic distress.
“Like us right now,” Manning said Wednesday, some three weeks after the announcement that Murray’s Briggs & Stratton plant – a source of economic strength for the community and region in general since its arrival in 1985 – will cease operations in fall 2020. Although that is a year away, the reduction of the 600-plus-employee workforce begins next month.
“TVA was a big part of electrifying this region in the first place, so they have a vested interest in what we do,” Manning said. “I was aware of a category that we’ve really not been part of in the past called Special Opportunities Counties, and it’s their way of providing extra attention and extra incentives for companies to locate to communities in our situation.”
Manning said he sent an email to Heidi Smith, TVA’s general manager for global business, a few days ago, not knowing how quickly, or even if, he would receive a response. Within a couple of hours, he said not only received a response from Smith, but Calloway had been designated as a county in the program.
“That tells me that we are way up on their radar screen and they really want to help us,” he said.
Smith confirmed that sentiment Wednesday.
“What we’re trying to do is take lemons and help them make lemonade,” Smith said, when reached at her office in Nashville, Tennessee. “One of the biggest concerns in a situation like this is, ‘Oh my gosh! What is going to happen with all of those jobs and all of those people?’ One area where we try to help is with finding opportunities for these workers, getting them transferred to other places within the region. We also look into what the existing building can be used for and how it can be repurposed.”
Smith also said this program has helped other communities who were seeking ways to cushion the blow of losing a major employer. She said the biggest example could be found more than an hour west of Murray in Union City, Tennessee.
“This was about seven or eight years ago, and they had just lost the Goodyear tire plant and everyone there was wondering about the town’s future,” she said, adding how, with TVA being involved, Union City economic development groups were encouraged to band together.
Now, the town is flourishing, partly thanks to the creation of the Discovery Park of America, just a short distance from the plant on U.S. 51. Union City is also part of the route Interstate 69 is taking from the Canadian border in Michigan to the Mexican border in Texas, which she said could further help spur the community’s economic fortunes.
“TVA makes loans for economic development, and because we’re now a Special Opportunities County, the interest rate on that loan is lower for us than it would normally be,” Manning said. “Then, they have another grant program that they call Invest Prep, and we actually have an Invest Prep project that is going to be done sometime in the next few months at (Murray West Industrial Park). So if we do another application for Invest Prep, instead of having like a 50/50 match, we only have to put up 30 percent and TVA would put up the other 70 percent. So those two things are really nice, but I think the most important thing about all of this is that Heidi immediately took action to help us.
“We are very high on TVA’s radar screen and we are also very high on the state’s radar screen. It’s not a huge thing, really, in terms of being (a major news item), but it’s a really nice thing for us and we want the community to know that a lot of people are paying attention to this and a lot of people are trying to help us.”