Apr 10 2007

TVA Megasite aims to attract auto plant

Decatur Daily

By Eric Fleischauer

No thanks to the spring pygmy sunfish, but Limestone County officials hope a TVA Megasite formally announced Monday will attract an automobile assembly plant.

Three years in the making, the 2,010-acre site extends from U.S. 31 to Interstate 65. Officials unveiled plans for it during a presentation at Calhoun Community College.

The land fronts I-65 from about mile marker 343 to mile marker 345. That places it within two miles of a planned interchange at Brownsferry Road, scheduled for construction beginning this fall.

The site's southern border, along Garrett Road north of Pryor Field, is one mile north of the Decatur city limits.

As a prerequisite for Megasite status, the property already has water, sewer, electric and natural gas access. It also has the potential for rail access. Although there are no specific plans for it, a concept drawing of the site includes an interchange at Garrett Road and I-65.

Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association, said no specific industry or industry type has been identified for the site.

He said the Tennessee Valley Authority designed the site to meet the criteria of an automobile assembly plant, but those same criteria would meet the requirements of many other industries.

TVA retained McCallum Sweeney Consulting to design the site. McCallum also assists large companies in site location. Its clients include Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Ideal site

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said the idea of establishing a TVA Megasite originated several years ago when he and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, were pitching North Alabama to Toyota. Toyota's North American president told them the ideal site would be close to I-65, close to the river and near the Tennessee state line.

Ed McCallum of McCallum Sweeney said the pace of site acquisition is so fast that an otherwise excellent community has no chance at a major project unless the land has already been accumulated and the infrastructure put into place.

"If you go after a mega-project, you have to have a site that's ready," McCallum said after the presentation. "They don't want to wait. As of today, you are ready. The dynamic that has changed is that you now have a product to sell."

Wetland obstacle

One of the obstacles to Megasite certification was a wetland located on the property. That problem is being circumvented with a 200-acre permanent conservation easement near the property's center.

Cynthia Robinson, president of Robinsong Ecological Resources Inc., contracted by TVA, said the presence of the endangered spring pygmy sunfish near the property complicated the environmental issues.

Spring pygmy sunfish

The spring pygmy sunfish — about one-inch long when mature — is found only in two locations, both in Limestone County, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Some inhabit the Beaverdam Creek watershed, which drains into Wheeler Reservoir. Others inhabit Pryor Spring. Biologists successfully stocked the fish in Pryor Spring in the 1980s. The first spring pygmy sunfish was discovered in Cave Spring, Lauderdale County, in 1938.

Robinson said TVA had to design the Megasite so as to avoid disrupting the wetlands, which could have upset the rare fish's environment.

This is TVA's ninth Megasite, and the first in Alabama. In February, Toyota chose a 1,700-acre Megasite in Tupelo, Miss., for a Highlander sport utility vehicle assembly plant. Toyota said the $1.3 billion plant will create 2,000 jobs.

Steel manufacturer SeverCorr bought a Megasite in Columbus, Miss., where it is building an $880 million, 450-employee plant.

McCallum Sweeney certified the Mississippi site.

"Having a certified Megasite ready for development in Limestone County along with access to affordable, reliable power gives the North Alabama region an advantage in recruiting new automotive assembly plants or related industries," said TVA President Tom Kilgore, who attended the presentation.

Cramer, who is co-chairman of the Congressional TVA Caucus, touted the regional cooperation that went into the Megasite's formation and the regional benefits that would come from it.

"It's not just Limestone County looking after Limestone County, or Madison County looking after Madison County. We're not even leaving out southern Tennessee," Cramer said.

Sanderson, Pryor families

The land included in the site is owned by the Sanderson and Pryor families. The Limestone County Economic Development Association holds options on the property.

Linda Swann, assistant director of the Alabama Development Office, said Megasite designation will make the site one of the most attractive in the region.

"You're really in good shape to be a candidate for many projects, with automotive (assembly) being at the top of that list," Swann said.

The concept drawing, in addition to two large assembly facilities, includes an automotive test track.

"My mom always told me if it was worth having, it's worth working really hard on," Hill said. Then he distributed buttons to several of the assembled officials that, when pressed, said, "That was easy!"