By Karen Hall
Employment numbers are looking better in Marshall County, and established industries are expanding.
Director of Economic Development Greg Lowe gave this encouraging news to members of the Industrial Development Board when they met last week.
The unemployment rate is down to 9.9 percent, Lowe said, and while that's nothing like the 4.8 percent it was in 2006, it's a lot better than the 20 percent unemployment seen in 2010.
"It's a positive trend," Lowe said. "I think 2013 will be a turning point for us."
Existing industries like CKNA, Teledyne, Heavy Metal, Rosemill, Christian Brands, and Lewisburg Printing are all leasing more space, Lowe reported.
He is also constantly at work trying to attract new industries to Lewisburg and Marshall County. One, code-named "Project Scrub," is looking for a building, and hunting for investors. Lowe also predicted an announcement would come soon on what he called "a good news project." This week Lowe will be making a presentation to a German car-parts manufacturer, along with representatives of seven other sites in Tennessee.
"It's all positive, good stuff," Lowe said. "We're on the map now. There were 55 views of my blogsite today before lunch."
He asked IDB members to think about the buildings and land the city could offer to industries thinking of locating here.
"We really only have two marketable buildings." Lowe said. As for tracts of land where a factory could be built, there aren't many of those either.
"When the spec building sells, we will want another, but it's not our decision," said IDB Chairman Eddie Wiles. "There's pressure on the council. You sometimes have to spend to get a return. I know there's communities around us going to build spec buildings. The IDB in Fayetteville is borrowing money for a spec building."
"If you don't build it they won't come," Lowe said. "It's a risk to build a building, but we might have to, to keep up with the Joneses."
The city council borrowed $1.4 million from a bank in 2008 to build the spec building at the I-65 Commerce Park, and have seen no return on their investment because the building is still vacant.
Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. recommended proceeding with caution, and councilman Robin Minor said, "I don't want another incident like that," noting, "We haven't had a tax increase in this city for 20 years."
"Maybe 20 years ago taxes were too high," Wiles said.
"We all love to brag we didn't raise taxes," said Mayor Barbara Woods. "But you can't close your mind to a vision to build things up, and it takes money. If you tell the public about the vision, if it's really going to help, they'll pay more taxes and enjoy the benefit."
"Don't discount sales tax revenue," Lowe reminded the group. "Retail development is important for sales tax revenue."
Returning to the lack of buildings and land to market, Lowe asked for guidance on how he should proceed.
"We need to figure out the next step," he said. "Should we pull back on recruiting and concentrate on expansion of existing businesses and encouraging entrepreneurs?"
"I don't think it's an option to pull back," exclaimed Dave Kennedy. "We need to have something in the pipeline if an existing industry moves away."
"The trend is to put more dollars into expansion of existing industries," Lowe said. "We do very little with small businesses and entrepreneurs. We may have to re-examine our game plan." He went on to suggest a possible division of the industrial development budget into 60 percent for expansion and retention of existing industries, 35 percent for recruiting of new business, and 5 percent for encouraging entrepreneurs.
"It's a complex thing," concluded Wiles. "For a municipality our size to have someone like Greg (Lowe), that's an advantage right there."