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Consultant presents economic development report to officials

Economic development consultant Don Schjeldahl addresses county officials. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Economic development consultant Don Schjeldahl addresses county officials. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Which of Unicoi County’s available properties will be most conducive to economic development?

It will be several weeks before local leaders receive the report providing the answer, but they now have an idea of how each may fare.

Members of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, local mayors, Unicoi County Commissioners and others gathered at The Bramble on July 19 to hear from economic development consultant Don Schjeldahl, who not only provided his take on the properties but his findings on what is needed in the county to bolster economic development.

Schjeldahl, a sub-consultant for Austin Consultants, was brought to Unicoi County by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development through its Select Tennessee Property Evaluation Program, which according to the state, was developed to expand the state’s inventory of industrial sites and existing buildings through an evaluation of a community’s existing inventory “that prioritizes where investment may be most beneficial and what steps may be needed to address issues and shortcomings.”

Unicoi County’s application for the Select Tennessee PEP was recently accepted.

Schjeldahl was in the county on July 18 and July 19 to conduct a two-day field evaluation of seven available properties and gather information on the county as a whole. The properties Schjeldahl covered in his presentation were the Morgan Insulation site, the CSX car shop, the CSX transportation office, two properties in the Dry Creek area, the Erwin Public Works building, the building formerly used by Steam Horse and Fishery Park.

Schjeldahl said 50 to 60 percent of companies looking to set up shop look to see if communities have existing properties available.

“If you don’t have an existing building, then you are immediately eliminated from 60 percent of the investment opportunities out there,” he said.

As for both of the CSX sites, Schjeldahl said both have “attractive assets,” but said the railroad may not relinquish control of the properties.

The former Morgan Insulation facility, Schjeldahl said, is in “deplorable condition.” He suggested a study of how an industry may be able to utilize the facility, adding that if a use could not be determined quickly, the site for economic development purposes should be abandoned.

Schjeldahl said the property in the Dry Creek area, previously optioned by the local Economic Development Board, presents “excellent sites” but said infrastructure upgrades would be needed to support growth and access to the sites would need to be improved.

The facility formerly utilized by Steam Horse, which Schjeldahl referred to as the “Rock Creek building” could be suitable as a business incubator. And while Schjeldahl said Fishery Park is a “beautiful park,” he said it is a “horrible site” for industries.

Schjeldahl said the town’s current Public Works building has considerable potential, as the portion of the property not used by the town could be utilized for heavy industrial uses.

Schjeldahl will issue a report in September in which the reviewed sites will be prioritized and other findings and recommendations for the county will be outlined. But Schjeldahl provided some of his initial thoughts during the luncheon.

Unicoi County’s positives include its modest population growth, family loyalties to the area, a citizenry actively engaged in community betterment, and “significant” untapped resources awaiting organization and promotion, Schjeldahl said.

Negatives outlined by Schjeldahl that could adversely impact economic development include local industries being vulnerable to closure and downsizing, a shortage of available land and buildings resources, the county’s relatively isolated location which minimizes outside growth pressures, and the county’s economic development strategy is “poorly defined.”

Schjeldahl said retail is not a solution for economic sustainability. He also said the portion of Interstate 26 that runs through the county sees a relatively low traffic volume and that the long-term value of the CSX rail line is uncertain as the coal industry continues to face difficulties.

But Schjeldahl said Unicoi County has plenty of cultural and natural resources that are attractive, including a beautiful yet underutilized downtown Erwin, various outdoor recreational opportunities, the state and federal fish hatcheries, a number of festivals, its railroad heritage, and even its history with the hanging of Mary the elephant – something Schjeldahl feels the community needs to embrace.

“I can see no other alternative for you than to embrace that,” Schjeldahl said, after mentioning that Google searches of Unicoi County returned stories on the hanging before providing other information about the county. “If you try to just bury this thing, it will never go away…Some things never die if you don’t change the perception that people have, and you’ve got to address this elephant hanging. It’s the elephant in the room, right?”

He added that the community’s hard-working population, the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, the area’s strong educational assets and the stock of attractive housing found throughout the county could also be attractive to industries.

Along with clearly defining its economic development strategy to retain local jobs and to attract technology-driven industries and tourism, Schjeldahl said Unicoi County should look at possibly developing a land use plan and should develop an identity through the creation of a brand and marketing plan.

“You’ve got so many things that you could work on here,” Schjeldahl said. “You have to set some priorities so you can use your resources effectively. And I would say support the efforts of economic development here…You’ve got a real opportunity here to reshape this community, not in a way that’s going to change your heritage, but to build on it because you can control that growth. Not all communities have that opportunity.”

Leanne Cox, site development director for the TNECD, said once the report is complete it will be provided to local economic development leaders to use as guidance if they so choose.

“Our commissioner is committed to doubling down in our rural communities, especially the ones that are maybe not as well off as some of the other ones, and this is one of the services that we’re proud to provide,” she said.