Haynes Elliott on industry

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   "Carter County: No gimmicks. A few problems, but none we can't overcome by working together. Eager work force looks for new jobs and companies willing to take a risk. Concessions package available to serious clients."
   It's not an actual advertisement, but it could be.
   Promoting Elizabethton and Carter County to industrial developers is a lot easier than it was in the 1960s when Haynes Elliott returned to head the office of Economic Development.
   There was no municipal airport, no hotel, no four-lane highways extending to Tri-Cities Regional Airport or even to Johnson City. The two-lane road across Rio Vista hill was the main thoroughfare, and it fell far short of a scenic highway. So, too, Bullocks Hollow, the main route to the airport.
   Likewise, there were no restaurants (and still aren't) offering an atmosphere where Elliott and company presidents could discuss potential deals while being wooed over a tantalizing dinner and drinks.
   When the owners of Jarl Extrusions, later Alcoa Aluminum, first came to look at settling in Carter County, Elliott didn't have much to work with. He whisked the Jarl executives through Bullocks Hollow, telling them it was a shortcut to Elizabethton. This was not perhaps the whole truth, but it was not a lie. And it avoided the lack-of-interstate-access issue.
   Now, Elliott might have stretched the truth a little when he let the Jarl representative think that the Holiday Inn in Johnson City was actually located in Carter County, but Elliott's job was to sell. The best he had to offer in fine dining at that time was the Franklin Club, which later burned.
   After Jarl signed on the dotted line, one of the executives said to Elliott: "You told me this Holiday Inn was in Carter County, and I believed that for the first few months."
   Elliott responded: "Well, Roger, let me ask you a question. If I had told you the truth, would I have you here?"
   "H..., no," the executive responded.
   "I rest my case," Elliott said.
   Since that time, Carter County and the City of Elizabethton have developed Elizabethton Municipal Airport, built two hotels, constructed a new four-lane highway that reduces traffic time to Bristol, as well as a four-lane highway into Elizabethton from Johnson City, and added Watauga Industrial Park. Elizabethton also still has East Tennessee Railway access.
   Since 1983 the city has obtained more than $1.8 million in grants alone that directly benefited Elizabethton industries, including a $200,000 Community Block Grant to assist the former Watauga Industries with industrial pretreatment requirements, according to City Manager Charles Stahl.
   Grant money totaling $873,000 has been approved by Congress and will be administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help fund a regional water/wastewater system through the Watauga Regional Water Authority.
   The Tennessee Department of Transportation is getting ready to buy right-of-way property for the Northern Connector, which will allow easier access to the Watauga and Cherokee industrial parks. Future plans include development of the Okolona Road exit, completion of widening projects on Gap Creek Road and Highway 91, and eventual widening of Highway 67 around Watauga Lake. Johnson County currently is working on bringing a four-lane highway across Cross Mountain which would tie in with Highway 91. All of these improvements will open access to Carter County.
   The area is ripe for industrial development. But it also has a relatively unexplored appeal: tourism.
   "One thing that has been a tremendous plus for us here," Elliott said, "is everybody that I bring in likes our climate. Everybody likes our downtown -- believe it or not. We say it's 'antique shops'; they see a little southern city. You take them up to the overlook at the lake, they'd really like to live here.
   "We have no problem with prospects," Elliott said. "We've got to have a place to put them."
   According to Carter County Executive Dale Fair, "It's kind of like a real estate agent: You show a lot of property." This week alone, there is a client coming to look at the Frank Schaffer Publications building. "We've got a secondary source looking at Alcoa. We've got a company coming in on the Cendant property. I've got someone interested in the old Ry-Marc building that has recently been abandoned down in Cherokee Industrial Park. We've got a lot of things in the works, but no announcements," Fair said.
   Elliott, and city and county leaders also work with the state and regional offices of Economic Development. "We hear of prospects that way, but frankly, the number of referrals they have right now are at an all time low," Fair said. "There are just not a lot of people looking to expand or to build new companies during this economic time."
   Fair and Elliott said one high-technology company recently looked at locating in Carter County, but "frankly, we could not show enough applications or give them names of people in the work force that could do what they want to do. In other words, we didn't have enough high-tech skilled employees here," Fair said. "Even if we went and recruited high-skilled areas, we don't have the numbers they're looking for. That's kind of a catch-22 we're in."
   Elliott said the Dallas, Texas, firm had expressed interest in the Cendant building. "They wanted us to get 1,000 applications. They wanted people that were technicians, that could tell people over the telephone how to fix computers.
   "With the state's help, we went all the way to King College, Milligan, the schools here, and we ended up with about 200 or 300 applications. We told them we could train them," Elliott said. "We haven't heard back."
   Star Building Systems came to Carter County looking for welders. "I took them up on Arney Hill to the welding school," Elliott said. As he was showing them through the vocational building, he noticed Star representatives looking through barrels where students discarded their practice materials.
   "I said, 'What are you all doing?'
   "He said, 'We're seeing how good these guys are. We want to see what they threw away.' "
   Star apparently was impressed, because they chose to locate in Watauga Industrial Park. "We had a lot of people on the road that were welders. A lot of them are back, and several of Alcoa's people are over at Star now," Elliott said.
   Star broke ground in 1999 and began production in 2000. Evone Pass of Star said Elliott "was instrumental in bringing this company here, because it almost went somewhere else. He told us what kind of tax breaks we could get from coming to Carter County and Tennessee. He was helpful on the site, the permits -- everything."
   Pass said moving to Carter County was a "good business decision." Location and availability of skilled workers were deciding factors. "It's almost in the middle of the Eastern Seaboard," she said. Star's customers extend from the tip of Florida to the tip of Maine, plus offshore. Also, Pass said, "It's very rich with welders here."