GM to sell old Saturn HQ

Friday, April 15, 2011
Bird watching expert Joe LaFleur points out different types of wrens in his favorite bird book, one of Peterson's field guides. Above right is the barred owl the group spotted while walking the Wilhoite Mill Trail at Henry Horton State Park.

General Motors has agreed to sell its 325,000-square-foot Northfield Building so changes can be made for more labor training, according to the Lewisburg man who chairs the Workforce Board in the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance.

Meeting in Lawrenceburg on Wednesday, the board was advised one more signature was needed from GM's Real Estate Division since GM's Board of Directors authorized the purchase option a couple of weeks ago, Workforce Board Chairman Tony Beyer said Thursday.

"It was to be done Friday," April 8, Beyer said, explaining the GM executive was not immediately available to complete that part of the transaction.

A purchase price has been negotiated and "It's a good deal," Beyer said. The sale contract is being called "a purchase and donation" agreement because the value is substantially higher than the price to be paid for the building.

"There's a strict confidentiality agreement" prohibiting release of the value of the exchange, he said. "It's appraised for more than the purchase price."

The Columbia-based South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance is a non-profit organization of community leaders and elected officials from eight counties that administer Tennessee Career Centers such as the one at the Columbia State Community College campus on South Ellington Parkway.

Acquisition of what had been Saturn headquarters -- and leasing of the building for several months now -- provides training space to improve Tennessee's workforce so those people will be qualified for better jobs.

Cooperation among the Workforce Alliance, three state departments, two governors, GM and other entities have led to this juncture with the lease purchase agreement for what was built by GM as headquarters for the now-closed Saturn Corp., Beyer said

"The purchase will be initiated by the workforce alliance and then the building would be transferred to a new entity," Beyer said.

When he was governor, Phil Bredesen set aside $5 million for the Alliance in the Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) so the building could be rented and possibly purchased to be a training facility owned by an organization that could lease space to sustain building operations.

That money "is sitting in the ECD account," Beyer said of a state budget action authorized by the General Assembly when Bredesen was governor. "The legislation (associated with the state budget action) was specific to the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance Board. "If we transfer (the building) before (the alliance acquires it, then) we cut ourselves out of the ECD money," or $5 million.

As a result, the buyer of the building will be the eight-county workforce alliance, but Beyer explained, that panel focuses on training - largely through centers like the one at the community college campus here - so another tax-exempt entity must be created to be the owner of the building.

Meanwhile, in Columbia, the Maury Alliance has been renamed the Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance. It's seen as a potential owner of the building by some, although Beyer points out that the state's $5 million was allocated to benefit Marshall, Maury, Hickman, Wayne, Lawrence, Giles, Lewis and Perry counties.

Hickman County Mayor Steve Gregory is the chairman of the South Central Workforce Alliance Board that includes Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey and five other county mayors.

"The Workforce Alliance doesn't need to be in the building business, so at some point in time the ownership of the building will be transferred to a separate 501(c)(3) entity," Beyer said, referring to a section of the federal tax code on income tax-free non-profit organizations.

Such a non-profit group to serve all eight counties apparently hasn't been formed yet and if it's deemed unworkable, Beyers said, "then yes, give it to the chamber alliance.

"I think there's a down side to that because then it becomes a Maury group and not a regional group," he said. "I think it's better to form a new 501(c)(3) to have membership comprised of the eight counties.

"In the final analysis, that [ownership] is to be determined by the eight county mayors and me on the board," Beyer said, warning, perception is important.

A separate issue is liability, something mayors would want separated from their individual county commissions.

Ultimately, the building is to be about one-third training facility and two-thirds leased space, he said.

"We (on the workforce board) figured, at most, we'd use 100,000 square feet and we'd sub-lease the rest and the revenue from that would fund the building," he continued.

As the alliance has been working with ECD, it's also been working with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, as well as the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

A new entrance to the Northfield Building is anticipated.

It would be from U.S. 31 across from the antebellum mansion, Rippavilla, Beyer said. That way there's no mixture of traffic between GM employees and those going to what's been known as GM's Northfield Building.

Also cooperating in the joint effort are Tennessee Technology Centers, Belmont University and Volunteer State Community College.

Training has been conducted at the building, but until recently, only GM employees and those of its supply companies such as Penske could be trained there for liability reasons.

Now, the lease has been finalized, and it's the purchase option part of the contract that's being finalized.

"Once we had the lease, we could start training the general public," Beyer said. "When GM was operating it, 50 percent of the building was used for training.

"The classes that we have run there include computer system technology, teacher licensing in math and science (for example an engineer could get credits to get a teacher's license), health information technology, medical billing and coding, green job technology, and residential wiring and plumbing."

Modifications of the property may cost "$2.2 million to $3 million, depending on whose estimate you look at," including the road and other infrastructure changes, he said.

As for the cost of the lease for the alliance, Beyer said, "We pay the utility bills," plus maintenance. "We have an allocation and the bills are a little over $30,000 a month. At end of year we'll see if we paid enough (monthly) and settle out.

"Hopefully, at the end of the year we'll have purchased the building," he said. "Now, all utility bills are going to GM."

Beyer, 64, moved to Lewisburg in 1977 from New Jersey where he taught school. He's been in the Army and, after working 26 years at First Farmers and Merchants Bank; he retired and has been active in business and public life in Lewisburg.

He's been working with, among others, Mayors Liggett and Bailey, Victor Lay and John Rawe on alliance panels, Beyer said.

The next quarterly board meeting of the workforce board is in Hohenwald on July 13.